Kim Ruehl Talks with Rodney Crowell About Writing and His New Album, 'Tarpaper Sky'
April 14, 2014
By Kim Ruehl, for FolkAlley.com
For decades, Rodney Crowell has been one of the most prolific and consistently stirring songwriters in the Americana realm. He's scored a number of mainstream country hits, but has more recently become a champion of high-quality collaborations. In the past decade, he's made a solo album ceding production to Joe Henry, and joined forces with author Mary Karr and Americana legend Emmylou Harris for a pair of collaborative discs that have been hailed as among the best of the years in which they were released. (The latter took home a Grammy and an Americana Music Award in 2013.)
Now, he has rolled out another solo album, Tarpaper Sky. Self-produced in collaboration with engineer Steuart Smith, the album is heavy on songs about home - going home, leaving home, and pining for home. In fact, it was while he was at home in Nashville, fresh from a stint on the road with Emmylou, that Crowell was kind enough to get on the phone with me one Saturday morning, to discuss the new disc and other matters.
Kim Ruehl: Let's start talking about Tarpaper Sky - your first non-collaborative solo record in, what, six years?
Rodney Crowell: Yeah, I have a solo one. Never said that much before. Yeah, there've been six years. This is 2014, isn't it? Sex and Gasoline was 2008.
KR: What made you decide to make another solo effort?
RC: My book Chinaberry Sidewalks was a solo effort, so I did get one solo effort in there.
KR: How was that different from songwriting for you?
RC: The only thing similar is work ethic. Actually writing a book takes more concentrated effort. You're a writer, you know what it takes. You've got to get up and go to work every day. But I do that writing songs, anyway, if I'm home. It doesn't work so well on the road, but over the years having raised some children, I became a morning-time worker, so I'm up working if I'm home.
KR: Writing a book like that, it takes a lot longer for people to hear it. Are some songs like that, too - they take years to hear?
RC: I don't know. There are songs on Tarpaper Sky that took me 20-plus years to write, so some songs took longer [than the book]. It took me ten years to write Chinaberry Sidewalks. It took me 23 years, I think, to write "Fever on the Bayou".
KR: In what way? Were there lines you were working on?
RC: I didn't have a last verse. Couldn't find the last verse. The first couple verses borrowed so heavily from Louisiana Cajun swamp music. Those words like jolais and creole and such things... the last verses were always too trite and cliché to mean anything. It wasn't until, in conversation, someone said the word Franglais, and I thought That's Cajun. The Cajuns butchered both French and English together and I said, Ah my last verse needs to be that butchered Cajun patois. And voila, there you are.
KR: were you working on this at the same time as Old Yellow Moon?
RC: Loosely. When we were making Old Yellow Moon I was entirely focused on that, although I started Tarpaper Sky before Kin. But, then I got to be around a couple of beautiful women. I put aside my needs for theirs.
KR: That Mary Karr project was interesting. What did you learn from working with her?
RC: Well, it was a conversation, you know. One of the things about my and Mary's collaboration was constant conversation. Most of those songs were born out of that conversation. In "If the Law Don't Want Me", she was talking about her sister and her boyfriend. We said let's put that in a song. The kind of conversation you can have with Mary Karr is very fruitful. The process we went through, that I was very keen on and Mary was very open to, we were trying to figure out how to let the poet's voice speak wherever we could. The words stand on a page to be read, in a poem. They don't have to sing... so there's that intimacy between the one reader and the poem. Words work in a different way in songs sometimes, because of the chord changes and the vowel sounds. Some words don't sing. So, we were very conscious - or I was - of trying to let the poet's choice work wherever we could. The example of that is the opening song. The opening line I had when I was playing guitar and singing was, "When our feet were tough as nails and our eyes were sharp as flint." And Mary said, "No, your feet aren't tough as nails, they're tough as horns, like a hoof, like cattle." I [thought she was] right about that, that's the right choice. It doesn't sing well, though. It doesn't sing like that "A" vowel. [sings] When our feet were tough as horns. When our feet were tough as nails... but, in the long run, we went with "horns" because that was the poet's choice and I much prefer it. It is the right word. That kind of thing. I learned a lot about that.
KR: Horn is a great word to sing, though.
RC: Ninety-nine out of a hundred songwriters wouldn't choose that word because of the vowel sound. You can't do as much with the vowel, but it's a great word to sing, you're right. When I sing it live, I always sing that song and when I get to "horns" it propels me through the rest of the song.
KR: You're such a writer and you did this collaboration with Mary Karr and Emmylou... I wonder, did ideas come out of that that maybe didn't spark a song for those projects, but turned into a song for your own work?
RC: Not really. Mind you I had seven songs from before I started with Mary or Emmy. Some of the songs that Mary and I were writing overlapped with some of the writing that became Tarpaper Sky. But, I think what I learned in the beginning of making Tarpaper Sky carried over very much into Kin, because I was recording [Tarpaper] without headphones and we did most of Kin without headphones. I'd gotten such great results just unplugging the headphones when we were in the room playing. When we got making Kin, I carried it over and the first thing I did [was] unplug the headphones. We recorded the first session with Norah Jones. We were talking and I said, "I can't use headphones anymore." She said, "I never could," so we just kept that all the way through. So my answer to your question was that it was less in writing and more in the performing part of things.
KR: Is that you trying to separate your producer brain from your performer brain?
RC: Exactly. I'm not interested much in production anymore. Everything that really stands the test of time with me - the great Ray Charles records that I love, the Howlin' Wolf records that I love - they weren't produced; they were performed. The producers back then just got the musicians together and got out of their way and let them perform. So, I'll spend the rest of my career chasing performance. I've produced enough in my day.
KR: But you produced this record.
RC: Yeah, but insomuch as it was produced. Tarpaper Sky wasn't produced, it was performed. It's all live. It's all what happened in the studio. We added some background vocals and that's it. This is really what happened. We had a really great engineer and I credit him with producing the audio. Steuart Smith and I had an ongoing conversation, so we sort of take credit for the arrangements. What little production there is, it's not really a produced album. It's just a performance of a bunch of songs.
KR: Would you say that's the biggest way your job has changed over the years?
RC: Well, writing has been satisfying for me since day one. I became a real songwriter pretty young. There are songs I wrote in my 20s that I still perform, that I can stand by. But as a recording artist, it was a slow process for me. It was a slow dawning. It wasn't until I was really 50 years old that I felt I had anything to show as a recording artist, felt I had some great songs. Since then, I've been committed to finding a way to perform so that if my kids have anything to hold up as a legacy, it can start with that.
KR: What do you think makes a song good?
RC: Oh shit. Can you describe what makes a song like "Pancho and Lefty" good? Pure poetry, originality, wonderful melody, succinct rhymes, no soft rhymes. Blue doesn't rhyme with black, don't try to convince me that it does. What makes a song great? "Sunday Morning Coming Down", Kris Kristofferson. Woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn't hurt. I mean, come on. I can't say what's good but I know when it is good. [sings] Hit the road Jack and don't you come back no more, no more, no more, no more. They want me to go to rehab, I say no, no, no. Is that poetry? Maybe not, but it certainly is great songwriting.
KR: Why did you call this album Tarpaper Sky?
RC: Because it sounds good. It's a great image. I like how it sounds. And it's a line in the song. Plus I grew up with tarpaper skies. You could see the sky through the roof at my mother and father's house because it was so poorly built and it was rotting out down in the semi-tropical climate of east Houston, so that's where the line comes from.
KR: Well, thank you Rodney. Those are all my questions. Is there anything else you'd like people to know?
RC: God, I wouldn't presume to tell anybody what they ought to know, or even what I think they ought to know.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 1:53 PM
| Comments (0)
Kim Ruehl Talks Songwriting With Catie Curtis
April 4, 2014
by Kim Ruehl for FolkAlley.com
Catie Curtis is one of those singer-songwriters whose work, if you let it, will quietly worm its way into your subconscious. There's no overt production tricks or big guitar solos to pull it all forward. Her songs hang in a kind of dreamy half-awake state, where one's perspective is most keen and honest, where the sounds are all soft and palatable, and where the truth has plenty of room to just come on out.
Even when she's singing about heartbreaking life scenarios, as she does on her new album 'Flying Dream,' she does so with a sort of warm embrace of the inevitable opportunity of it all. Sadness and disappointment are implicit in love and happiness - two sides to the same coin, so to speak. Anyway, it's all part of the big Life Experience we all share.
Her songs aren't profound as much as they are just plain real and true. And, this time out, she teamed up with Sugarland co-founder Kristen Hall, for a collection of songs that wrestle with the unconscious understanding that major tectonic change is on its way. She got on the phone with me, from her New England home, and talked a bit about the songs, the collaboration, and where 'Flying Dream' began:
Kim Ruehl: Let's start with your new record and where it came from for you. I know you wrote a lot of these songs with Kristen Hall. How did that come to be?
Catie Curtis: We'd get together for coffee and just shoot the breeze about life. We'd just connect about one line that one of us would say and that would be our song for the day.
KR: It was really that easy?
CC: Well, then all the painful cycle of enthusiasm and discouragement that is always songwriting. A lot of times, one of us would have a chord progression that we'd been playing around with over the last few days prior, so we'd take those chords with the one line we had. We may not keep any of that, but it would get us started. It would get a song going and that's the hardest thing, just getting a song going.
KR: You've done mostly solo songwriting in the past. You've co-written a song here or there, but was it a different experience co-writing most of a whole album? Or did it just flow?
CC: It felt like it was perfect for the time that I was writing because at the time, it was sort of like, unbeknownst to me, it was a calm before the storm time of my life. It didn't seem like much was happening. We wrote at a time when I wasn't feeling like independently sitting down and writing. It helped me to get the creative juices flowing.
KR: And then you wound up having a lot of changes in your life in the process?
CC: Yeah, I haven't been talking too much about it because it's still in the midst of happening... my wife and I have separated and it looks like we're getting a divorce. I think a lot of that stuff was brewing and, when I was singing the record, there was a lot of passion and I was beginning to feel changes coming.
KR: Some people have said before that when you're in the middle of a difficult situation, it's hard to have the perspective to write about it, whereas other people are able to find great fruit in that situation. Did you feel like what you were writing became prophetic? Or that there was some opportunity for healing in the songs you were writing as all this started to go down?
CC: I think prophetic may be too strong a way to put it, but I'd say it restores my belief that creativity comes from a place that's unconscious. I think creative expressions... speak from a less conscious place. It's almost frightening to think maybe I could have been more aware of what was happening. But, you're only aware of what you're ready to be aware of. Somehow your creative life, it's possible to express what's there even if you're not ready to think about it.
KR: How has songwriting changed for you over the past 20 years? Do you feel like you know it better or is it something you're still exploring?
CC: I trust myself more now than I used to. I trust that if I really wanted to write a song on a given day, I could. It might not be a song that I love. But, what brings about a really good song that I love... I feel like it came to me from somewhere else. I feel really confident in the craft of it, and feel like I can come up with something. But in terms of having those magical inspiration [moments] where something hits you that you know is going to be a good song, I don't understand the timing of how that happens. Even with Kristen, we wrote several songs that didn't make the record. We'd start something and never finish it. But I think ultimately, you start to understand that as long as you're writing songs, some of them will turn out to be good.
KR: Do you revisit those [parts of songs] that you don't use?
CC: I recorded a demo not released on a record, then two or three records later, the new version is on the record. I think it's possible there are times when you just don't have the answer yet. You don't know what the song needs to say. You know part of it but not all of it. I respect the fact that there are songs that for some reason... sometimes events in our world come along and fill in. I had the chorus to a song once that went "The truth is bigger than these drops of rain." I didn't know what that song was going to be about, but then a few months later Hurricane Katrina happened and I wrote a song [with Mark Erelli] called "People Look Around" about it and it ended up being one of the songs I still play almost every night. If I'd pushed it and tried to finish it when I first started it, I don't think I would have put those two ideas together.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 1:37 PM
| Comments (0)
A Folk Alley Discount for Jonatha Brooke's 'My Mother Has 4 Noses'
March 25, 2014
Jonatha Brooke is not only a talented singer/songwriter, she is also the creative force behind a new musical memoir currently playing at New York's The Duke on 42nd St. The play centers on the story of Brooke's mother's battle with Alzheimer's Disease and the changing relationship of mother and daughter. It is getting rave reviews. The New York Times says, "Devastating and gorgeous. A poignantly funny, beautifully created narrative."
Folk Alley listeners can use the code MMH4NRRM20 to purchase $44 tickets for 'My Mother Has 4 Noses' this week (offer good through 3/30). Click the file below for additional information on redeeming the discount code.
Four Noses Contest Offer.2.doc
Posted by Ann VerWiebe at 5:50 PM
| Comments (0)
New Music for March
New Music for a Happy Spring
Here's a way to get a lot of people to retweet - use the name Nickel Creek in your post. Much to the joy of its legions of fans, the band has rather improbably reunited for a new CD, A Dotted Line, and is out on tour. Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins have all had success on their own, but they kept crossing paths, performing together and writing new songs. We'll just call it throw-back summer.
Speaking of throw-backs (and Sean and Sara Watkins, who appear on this CD), singer/songwriter Jackson Browne is the focus of a new tribute. One of the top artists in the singer/songwriter movement in the late '70s, Browne wrote tons of top hits - and is still on the road today. Others lending their talents to Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne include Jimmy LaFave, Eliza Gilkyson, Marc Cohn, Lucinda Williams, and many others.
Eliza Gilkyson was the very first Live From Folk Alley, recorded in 2005 at the Beachland Ballroom. Since then, she's released five more albums on the Red House Records label. Her newest collection is The Nocturne Diaries. In the Hear It First Folk Alley hosted earlier this month, Kim Ruehl said, "The album is wrought with raw recordings that sound like the sort of close and quiet tunes you might hear when you wander late night at the Kerrville Folk Festival outside Gilkyson’s hometown of Austin, Tex. Even the instrumental solos – fiddle, parlor piano, musical saw, the occasional distorted guitar – sound like the restrained contributions of friends seeking more to color the spirit of the song than steal the spotlight."
As March comes to a close, there's still time to get lucky with Classic Celtic Music from Smithsonian Folkways. The album, no surprise from Folkways, is a comprehensive collection of older, traditional performances and contemporary reinterpretations of Celtic songs. Vocal and instrumental styles are both represented.
Other springtime additions:
Amy Black - "This Is Home"
Beoga - "Live at 10: The 10th Anniversary Concert"
Canadafrica: Mike Stevens and Okaidja Afroso - "Where's the One?"
Claudia Schmidt - "New Whirled Order"
Dietrich Strause - "Little Stones to Break the Giant's Heart"
Flaco Jimenez & Max Baca - "Flaco & Max: Legends & Legacies"
Jamestown Revival - "Utah"
John Gorka - "Bright Side of Down"
Laurie Lewis - "One Evening in May"
Rhonda Vincent - "Only Me"
Robby Hecht - "Robby Hecht"
Robert Sarazin Blake - "Robert Sarazin Blake"
Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers feat. Edie Brickell - "Live"
Teada - "In Spite of the Storm"
The Farwell Drifters - "Tomorrow Forever"
The Infamous Stringdusters - "Let It Go"
Posted by Ann VerWiebe at 5:46 PM
| Comments (0)
Job Opening at WKSU/Folk Alley
March 13, 2014
Folk Alley's mothership, WKSU, is hiring a Major Gifts Officer. Details below!
Director of Advancement, WKSU (Major Gifts Officer)
Position number 995774
Duties and Responsibilities:
The Director of Advancement is responsible for developing and implementing a comprehensive special and major gifts fundraising program to generate private gift support for WKSU and is directly responsible for managing a portfolio of prospects. WKSU is a non-profit public radio station that broadcasts NPR and classical music throughout Northeast Ohio. This position reports to the Senior Associate Vice President, Institutional Advancement.
Education and Experience:
Bachelor's Degree in a relevant field; three - four years progressively responsible fundraising and/or sales experience is required. Experience in higher education fundraising is preferred. Ability and desire to travel and participate in evening and weekend work-related activities are required. Excellent interpersonal skills, written and verbal communications: including public relations skills.
Kent State has recently been selected as a "Great Colleges to Work For" by The Chronicle of Higher Education, the nation's number one source of news, information and jobs for college and university faculty members and administrators. This is the third time the university has been selected for this honor in the past four years.
Apply on line at www.Kent.edu
All documents submitted to Kent State University for employment opportunities are public records and subject to disclosure under the Ohio Public Records Law.
EQUAL OPPORTUNITY/AFFIRMATIVE ACTION EMPLOYER
Posted by Linda Fahey at 10:13 AM
| Comments (0)
Hear It First at Folk Alley - Eliza Gilkyson
March 11, 2014
**This exclusive Hear It First is no longer available for streaming.**
By Kim Ruehl, for FolkAlley.com
The cover of Eliza Gilkyson's 20th studio album, The Nocturne Diaries (out Mar. 18 on Red House Records), shows her sitting next to a campfire with an acoustic guitar. Though the notion of a fireside folksinger may seem a little cliché, there is nothing campy or predictable about the music contained on this disc. Instead, the album is wrought with raw recordings that sound like the sort of close and quiet tunes you might hear when you wander late night at the Kerrville Folk Festival outside Gilkyson's hometown of Austin, Tex. Even the instrumental solos - fiddle, parlor piano, musical saw, the occasional distorted guitar - sound like the restrained contributions of friends seeking more to color the spirit of the song than steal the spotlight.
As Gilkyson writes in the liners, "The songs that come in the night are very different than the daylight songs. Usually the big themes crop up in the dark, thoughts of mortality, the state of the world, the plight of mankind, one's failures, losses and fears - the things we are too distracted to notice during the day... To me, the challenge today is to remain human when everything around us compels us to shut down."
Though her career has certainly produced its share of great songs that tackle all these difficult nighttime topics, what's new about The Nocturne Diaries is that those themes come to light in an even more honest and arresting way. There's no solving the world's problems at night - only considering them and following them toward their natural anxieties, how one fear often leads to another or, if we're lucky, toward a more open understanding.
An easy highlight is "The Red Rose and the Thorn", whose rhyme scheme as well as its subject matter may make you wonder if it's an old ballad, dug up and dusted off for contemporary use. In fact, it's an Eliza Gilkyson original, written with the kind of astute folk sensibility that she has always purveyed.
"An American Boy" tackles the harsh difficulty of standing in the shoes of an angry young man, who dreams of literally blowing it all up. It's a difficult song to hear, as she attempts to arrive at some empathy. It's also probably the only song you'll hear use the word "Facebook" in a poetic and purposeful way. In the interest of balance, she touches on pretty much every other fear and deep thought, from Noah's Ark and environmental catastrophe all the way to romantic love and back again. There are cover songs from John Gorka and her father, Terry Gilkyson. But it's the final track that closes the night on a high note, saving us all from a rotating door of dark emotions. She sings: "Tonight I confess I am forever blessed / by the riches of family and hearth. / And with this roof o'er my head and you in my bed, I've got it all here in my heart."
The Nocturne Diaries is as much about the darkness in the middle of the night as it is about getting through to night's end. It's a journey album that wrestles with some of life's greatest questions, pays tribute to her family and heroes, and discovers what ultimately matters most.
**This exclusive Hear It First is no longer available for streaming.**
Posted by Linda Fahey at 4:50 PM
| Comments (0)
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis - Rap Stars or Fine Young Troubadours?
February 27, 2014
by Ann VerWiebe, for FolkAlley.com
As I was live tweeting the Grammy Award ceremonies, I couldn't help but notice that the most-folkie song on the mainstage came courtesy of rapper Macklemore and his big hit Same Love. You may not know the duo, but they won multiple Grammys and their songs are topping the charts. There is a standing argument that rap is the new folk - a genre that relies on personal observation and reflection on real-world situations. But, there's something extra about Same Love that builds on that premise.
If you haven't heard the song, it's basically a message rap supporting same-sex marriage. Macklemore, who is straight, has been interviewed as saying that he originally wanted to write the song from a gay person's perspective, but his musical partner, Ryan Lewis, convinced him to tell his own story to add to the authenticity of the lyrics. A lot of press covered the mass wedding that took place at the Grammys during his performance, but while it was obviously a stunt, the event illustrated the truth of marriage equality in the U.S. - like snowflakes, no two couplings are truly alike.
And, isn't truth at the core of contemporary folk music? When Pete Seeger died, I was grateful that the sad event could have a positive effect as we were once more reminded how powerful purpose-driven music can be. One of the reasons folk music became the music of a generation in the '60s was its ability to add power to the protests as it brought like-minded people together in a cause. As folk grew in popularity, the songs were able to reach out into the mainstream and work their subtle magic in offering the world a different point of view.
Gay marriage has been a controversial topic and discussions surrounding its legality often become divisive. But, aren't the best conversations strongly felt? Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' Same Love takes hold of the best traditions of folk activism and moves the music to the mainstage to expose their message to the largest audience. In 40 years, will this be a watershed moment in folk music?
Posted by Ann VerWiebe at 3:49 PM
| Comments (1)
New Music for February
New Music for the Folk Alley Collection
For the second month in a row, I'm featuring a young folk artist from Seattle. Washington State is an interesting mix of rural farm country and metropolitan cities. Noah Gundersen reflects this contrast - growing up in a small town and now living in the center of new technology and boutique coffee. His music, which touches on these contradictions in modern life, has found its way to a list of soundtracks. Check Noah out on Ledges.
Leyla McCalla first came to our attention as the cellist touring with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. That band has always made a point of combining great musicianship with the cultural and social history of African Americans and Leyla's new CD follows that path. Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes includes songs created from Hughes' words and original music and tributes to McCalla's Haitian heritage - a country that also inspired Hughes.
It seems amazing that The Haden Triplets is the first CD from this super trio of sisters. The off-spring of legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden, the young women have made their mark playing in or with The Decemberists, Weezer, Beck, Green Day, That Dog and many others. After playing together live - and backing their dad on his Rambling Boy album - Petra, Rachel and Tanya have recorded a collection of old-time songs produced by Ry Cooder featuring the sister's tight harmony - captured in Tanya's 1900s farm house.
It almost seems as if the world is falling back in love with the banjo. Steve Martin has reinvented himself as a touring picker - and a Grammy winner at that! Martin gained a lot of musicianship cred when he appeared with Tony Trischka, hereforthwith referred to as "the banjo player's banjo player." Trischka is back with Great Big World and the album is almost as big as its name. Welcoming back Martin, along with Aoife O Donovan, Noam Pikelny, Larry Campbell, Abigail Washburn, Ramblin Jack Elliot, and others. As we honor Pete Seeger, Trischka is here to move us into the next iteration of the banjo.
More from February's list:
Suzy Bogguss - "Lucky"
The Sea The Sea - "Love We Are We Love"
Steve Dawson - "Rattlesnake Cage"
Karan Casey - "Two More Hours"
Brandy Clark - "12 Stories"
Will Kimbrough - "Sideshow Love"
Posted by Ann VerWiebe at 12:45 PM
| Comments (0)
Folk Alley Sponsors a Documentary at the Cleveland International Film Festival
February 21, 2014
Folk Alley is pleased to announce a new collaboration with the 38th Cleveland International Film Festival. We are happy to sponsor screenings of The Ballad of Shovels & Rope at the festival, which runs from March 19 to 30 at Tower City Cinemas in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. The documentary film captures the tours and detours of a husband and wife as they create and release the critically acclaimed album, O' Be Joyful. From working for tips to becoming "Emerging Artist of the Year," the two-man family band uses ingenuity and hard work to create something out of nothing. Screenings of The Ballad of Shovels & Rope will be at Tower City on March 24 at 7:20 p.m. and March 25 at 12:15 p.m. with a special screening at the Beachland Ballroom on March 23 at 8 p.m.
Tickets go on sale for all films to CIFF members at 11 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 28, one week before the general public (11 a.m. on Friday, March 7). Ticket prices for members are $12 and $14 for non-members. Use the code FOLK for a $2 discount per ticket.
Find out more about the film HERE and the Cleveland International Film Festival HERE. See a live performance by Shovels & Rope recording by Folk Alley at the Nelsonville Music Festival HERE.
Continue reading "Folk Alley Sponsors a Documentary at the Cleveland International Film Festival"
Posted by Ann VerWiebe at 2:04 PM
| Comments (0)
A Q & A with Parker Millsap
February 7, 2014
by Kim Ruehl, for FolkAlley.com
Twenty-year-old Parker Millsap is the latest in a string of surprisingly bluesy, literary songwriters rising from the small towns of Oklahoma. Despite his youth, Millsap's insight into the characters that populate his songs is fierce. Whether he's singing about deeply troubling heartbreak in "The Villain" or the desperate evangelism of a street preacher in "Truck Stop Gospel", Millsap's songs seem to understand things about the world that belie his two-decades of life thus far.
Then again, his heroes include giants like Tom Waits and John Steinbeck - no slouches in the world of storytelling and unpacking the motivation of heavily-nuanced characters. Speaking of good company, he has plans in the works to tour with Shovels + Rope this spring, and is working out some dates with Patty Griffin for the summer. Chances are you'll hear a lot more about him as the year goes on. His first nationally distributed disc dropped Feb. 4, and recently he was nice enough to hop on the phone with me and talk a little about the source from which it all springs.
Kim Ruehl: I'm curious about the art inside of the CD - the trucker with the Bible. It follows along with one of the songs, but is that a central image to you, for this album?
Parker Millsap: The artist who did all the artwork is named Tessa Raven, she's from Oklahoma. I basically asked her to do a picture for the album cover. When she did that, I was like wow we should just get her to do all the art. She came up with it on her own. I had an idea for a picture of a guy leaning out of the truck with the bible. I [told her to] do whatever she wanted with that idea and that's what she came up with. I was very pleased. I don't know if that's a central idea, but I think it's one of the stronger songs on the record and that makes it interesting to look at.
KR: It's one of my favorite songs on the record. It's difficult to tell if you're sympathizing with the truck stop gospel guy, or if it's a satire. Do you want to say where you sit on that?
PM: I let people think what they want. People are going to interpret it how they want to anyway. It's fun for me to let them take it. I'm real big on perspective. A lot of the songs on the record are first-person narratives but not from my perspective. I had to get in their heads and be [the characters] to write the song. When I was writing that song, it started out as kind of a funny idea. But ... there are many things about him that at first I didn't think I'd be able to relate to, but by the end of the song I realized there's a lot I could relate to about that guy. It's up to people to decide what they think I mean by it. I've had people come up to me after the show and say "I'm glad you're poking fun at the religious establishment with that song." Other people say, "Praise the Lord! Thanks for doing the Lord's work." [laughs] I like that people interpret it in different ways. I'm never going to say if it's one way or another.
KR: You're a young guy but you have all these insightful songs. What did you grow up listening to and what kind of books and music are you into these days that have given you this sense of storytelling?
PM: When I was growing up, I listened to a whole lot of church music, a lot of gospel music. That was at church and then at home, my dad's a big blues music fan so I listened to a lot of blues and a lot of songwriters like Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett. Then there was this one John Hiatt record that I listened to a lot called Bring the Family. That record and then a bunch of Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, Ry Cooder, and that sort of thing is what I grew up listening to. Then when I got older and started writing songs, I discovered Townes Van Zandt and John Prine. I'm also a big Springsteen and Waits fan, so it's kind of all over the map. I think the thread through all of those is solid songs that paint a picture. As far as books go, I'm a big Steinbeck fan and a big Vonnegut fan. Those are my favorite authors.
KR: That makes sense. The last few years, we've been hearing great stuff, between you and John Fullbright, Samantha Crain, JD McPherson... there seems to be this big Oklahoma boom going on. Do you have any thoughts on why?
PM: There's nothing else to do here. [laughs] Most small towns don't even have a bowling alley. You've got to find something else to do. Some kids get someone to buy them some Keystone, then they drive around in a field and get drunk. Others sit around and write songs.
KR: What were you listening to when you wrote this record?
PM: A lot of Tom Waits. I don't remember what else I was listening to. I'm always listening to a lot of Tom Waits, so I can say that in confidence. I was also just starting to get into Motown. You can hear it in [some parts] that sound like Motown to me. So I guess Tom Waits and Motown, which might not make sense because it doesn't' necessarily sound like either of those things, but that's what I've been listening to.
KR: Is being on the road inspiring, or do you find it stifling? Do you have time to write when you're traveling?
PM: I'm still new to trying to balance touring and writing and that sort of thing. I haven't written a whole lot since we recorded this record because I've basically been self-managing and this is our first national record release. I've had the whole business side of things to do, which is good because I'm learning how it all works. I can protect myself now. I know what to look for, but at the same time it's consuming a lot of my time and energy. I do like being on the road for finding characters. I've never successfully written on the road, but I definitely collect ideas and fragments of ideas.
KR: Is there anything else you'd like folks to know about you or this record?
PM: Buy it. Buy the record so I can eat a hamburger tomorrow.
Posted by Kim Ruehl at 3:55 PM
| Comments (0)
More Blog Entries