Rising star Courtney Marie Andrews Discusses Melancholia and “The Crying Machine”

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When Blabber’n’Smoke spoke to Courtney Marie Andrews at the tail end of last year we were awaiting the release of her album Honest Life with the promise of a tour to follow. Four months later and Ms. Andrews is the talk of the town. The album’s been a great success, reaching the number one slot in the Official Americana charts and her performances on her tour with The Handsome Family received critical acclaim. A measure of her success is that she was back in London for a two day stop last week to perform on the BBC’s Later…with Jools Holland, quite a coup for an artist on an independent label given that this show is just about the only televised music show on the Beeb these days.

The day after she recorded her appearance Courtney was gracious enough to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke during a brief coffee break before she set out to perform a short set at Rough Trade West later that afternoon.

 

First off, we should say congratulations to you. The album’s taken off, the tour was a success and finally you get to appear on prime time TV.

Thanks. It’s just been great. I really enjoyed touring with The Handsome Family and loved meeting so many people and then getting on to the show last night was brilliant. They only showed one song last night but we recorded two with Jools playing piano on the second one.

And you were accompanied by BJ Cole on pedal steel, a man who many folk would call a legend.

Yes, he was tremendous. Did you know that he played on Tiny Dancer?

He’s been on so many great records but that’s a great one. I love that scene in Almost Famous when they sing along to it on their tour bus.

Yeah, that’s a classic film.

It’s funny that you mention Tiny Dancer because Bernie Taupin apparently wrote that about his and Elton John’s experiences in California in 1971 and many folk have mentioned how your music reminds them of that time. Just yesterday I saw that you were asked by Albumism to pick a favourite album and you chose The Band’s The Last Waltz. You explain your choice there but I was going to ask you why this period of music talks to you.

Well, although I love classic country songs and singers my influences are mainly in that early seventies sound. The Band took stuff like the blues and old time music and Levon Helm influenced the other guys to write those country type songs. I really think that they were the first “alt country” or Americana band as they were doing this even before Gram Parsons when they sat down and did The Basement Tapes.  And the guys I play with in the band, we all kind of come from that rootsy background that comes across on their records so The Band resonate with me a lot.

Looking back over the past three months it seems you’ve been incredibly busy but you had the time to record a song with Will Oldham, a cover of Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew How it Is To Be Free.

There’s a project called Our First 100 Days and I wanted to do something with them. I’ve always loved that song and I wanted to do it as a duet and I really like Will Oldham so we called him and he agreed to do it! So the band and I recorded the song and then sent it over to Will and he did his vocals.

So you weren’t together in the studio? I thought that maybe you would have jumped into your old tour bus and searched him out.

That would have been great but we’re too far away from each other for that.

I’m only kidding. I saw the van in the video for Put The Fire Out and it looks really funky but not altogether roadworthy.   Do you really go on the road in that?

Yes, sometimes we do.

Well you need to fix the license plate at the front, it’s falling off

I know, it’s still like that.

In that song, Put The Fire Out you sing that it’s time to let down your hair and have a good time so has this year been fun?

Yes, I’ve been having a lot of fun. It’s been hard work but I’ve been feeling good about it. I’ve been so busy since the beginning of January but when I fly home I have two weeks off.

Some of Honest Life was written in the aftermath of a break up and the album has a somewhat melancholic air about it. In the wake of what’s happened since can we expect the next record to be a happier affair?

I think people will be surprised when the next album comes out, I’ve been writing for it a lot.  I think that I inherently have that melancholia in me regardless but I’m not afraid to explore other emotions. I think it’s important as a songwriter to really go with your feelings and not to stick with just one hyper sad song. Bob Dylan’s written about a wealth of emotions and I really respect it when people can do that so I never put that type of barrier on myself. I hope I can write songs that are not so melancholic but which are still great. I think that if I were to write Honest Life over and over again people would get quite tired of that so it’s important to kind of push yourself.

I was looking at your tour schedule and it looks pretty daunting. Tours of Canada, Australia and New Zealand before you come back to the UK in August and then zoom around Europe.

Well I’ve got a bit of time before I head out again and that will be time to write for the next album but after that I’ll be on tour until the end of the year. I’m really excited to get back to the UK and let folk hear the full band sound and we’re playing again in Glasgow at a place called The Hug & Pint.

Well everyone I know who saw you earlier this year is going to that although it’s such a small venue that once you and the band are on stage there might not be room for the audience. We’re looking forward to the full band experience although your show with Bryan Daste on pedal steel was wonderful. A  Blabber’n’Smoke acquaintance who also plays pedal steel was quite impressed with him and they’re now Facebook buddies.

Yeah, everybody loves the pedal steel and that’s kind of how the pedal steel world works. They have their own little forum where they talk to each other.

One of your label mates on Loose Music, Danny Champ, calls the pedal steel the ironing board of love.

That’s great. I’ve heard so many great terms for it but I call it the crying machine.

And with that we left Courtney to enjoy her coffee before heading off to do her instore show at Rough Trade. You can read a short review of her performance over at Americana UK. In the meantime I’d recommend that if you want to see her later this year to grab your tickets now as it’s unlikely she’ll be performing in such intimate venues again.

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Tour dates

Update: 24/4/17. Due to a huge demand Courtney’s Glasgow show has been moved to a larger venue and she is now appearing at st. Lukes.

 

 

 

 

 

Western Centuries UK and Ireland Tour

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Western Centuries head over to the UK and Ireland for the first time later this month with 18 shows penned in over a four week stretch. Exciting news given that their album Weight Of The World was a fixture in many of last year’s top ten lists with this fine quote summing them up quite neatly.

“If it seems crazy to compare any band today to giants like the Band and the Flying Burrito Brothers, then call me crazy, but Western Centuries is the country supergroup we’ve been waiting for: three first-rate lead singers, each of whom writes solid, heartwarming and heartbreaking country songs, together in one band.”    —Kristin Cavoukian, Exclaim! Magazine

 Comprised of Seattle-based country musician Cahalen Morrison, jam band veteran Jim Miller (co-founder of Donna the Buffalo) and bluegrass-by-way-of-punk rock songwriter Ethan Lawton, Western Centuries grew out of a solo project of Morrison’s called Country Hammer. Having enjoyed both the Country Hammer album and Weight Of The World Blabber’n’Smoke was glad to be offered the opportunity to speak briefly with Cahalen Morrison as he was  preparing for a show in North Carolina last week.

Acclaimed as one half of  acoustic roots duo, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West, Morrison’s solo debut Country Hammer, released in 2014, surprised many given that it was a full blown country album with a band in tow. Regarding this apparent change in direction Cahalen explains, “That’s music I’ve played really since I was a kid and when I was in bands back home in New Mexico we played country music. I felt it was just a fun thing to change from an acoustic set up to rock and roll a bit”.  While Country Hammer was a solo project with all songs written by Morrison, Jim Miller played on the album and sang two of the songs and pretty soon it evolved. “Well Ethan was in the band as well playing drums and singing and we started bringing in tunes that both Ethan and Jim had written. So we decided to change the band name so it didn’t look like it was me and my band with some other folk just sitting in and singing some stuff. With Western Centuries it’s equal duties for the three of us.”

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There’s a great deal of variety on Weight Of The World with honky tonk songs, beer stained laments and cosmic cowboy observations all jostling for space. With three singers and songwriters on board reviewers have often made comparisons with The Band particularly with regard to Miller’s songs. Asked about this Cahalen replied, “I can see the comparison and it can be useful for people to hear that and get a hold of it and say, “Well I like The Band so maybe I’ll like these guys.” And we all love The Band and that kind of vibe of three writers and three singers all sharing and collaborating so I’d say that the comparison is pretty accurate. It makes the show great fun for us. To get to do all this different stuff, to be able to sing lead then have a break and sing harmony and then I’ll jump behind the drums and Ethan will get up on guitar and sing his songs and throughout the show we all switch around on electric and acoustic guitars”.  As for other influences that reviewers have mentioned such as seventies country rock bands including The Burritos and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band he stated, ” it’s hard to say what has influenced us because we’ve all heard bands like those. But we all listen to George Jones and things like that so it just all kind of seeps in and happens.”

When Blabber’n’Smoke reviewed Weight Of The World I mentioned that Philosophers and Fools was perhaps the first country song to mention the dating app Tinder thinking it to be a cunning pun that fitted in with the song’s imagery about love burning out but this theory was blown out of the water when I asked Cahalen about this. “I didn’t realise it when I wrote it but it does work out to be a funny little thing that accidentally happened. So I wasn’t singing about the Tinder app but it’s a funny coincidence”. And while some of Morrison’s lyrics are meaty such as “I’ve seen the weight of the world crumble with an easy equation. I’ve seen the weight of a man gone to hell, cryin’ he don’t understand,”  (he draws from writers such as Gabriél Garcia Marquez,  cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell, and Cormac McCarthythey’re delivered with an undeniable sense of good time freewheeling fun so I asked Cahalen what the live shows are like. “We generally have a lot of dancers and most of the places that we play they’ll clear the chairs for a dance floor. We definitely have a good time on the stage and I sure hope the audience does too. They seem to.” As for the band’s debut visit over here, Cahalen is looking forward it. “I’m excited to be coming over with the band. I’ve been over so many times with Eli and I’ve got lots of friends that I’m excited to be seeing again. I really love Scotland, it’s my home away from home so to speak and I’m really excited about playing at Kilkenny Roots, I’ve heard really fun things about the festival. We’ll have Leo Grassi from Nashville on pedal steel and Travis Stuart from North Carolina on bass playing with us.”

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We ended our chat with Cahalen talking about future plans, “In August we plan to be recording in Louisiana for a new album which will probably come out next year. It should be fun, we’ll be down in Cajun country and I reckon some of that will rub off on the music.”

Western Centuries’ tour commences on 19th April in London and will include two shows at Kilkenny Roots Festival and five Scottish dates. All tour information is here.

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Todd Day Wait on Serendipity and the Art of Busking

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At the tail end of last year I heard this album from a guy from New Orleans called Todd Day Wait. It was an unassuming listen, no flash or fandango, just some very fine folk, country and blues which, incidentally, was the name of the album. There wasn’t that much info on Todd on the old interweb thing but lots of video of him and his band, Todd Day Wait’s Pigpen, busking around America. I described the album in a review  as ” a bit of a gem in the vein of a down home Leon Redbone or a pared back Pokey LaFarge with its roots in the pantheon of American roots legends” and it’s been on regular rotation over the months. The album, Folk-Country-Blues,  was released on a German label, Blind Lemon Records, which indicated some European interest and sure enough Todd announced a couple of months back that he was swinging through the continent over March and April. Strangely enough I heard about that via Ags Connolly, a good friend of Blabber’n’Smoke and who turns out to be a buddy of Todd so when I eventually was able to talk to Todd on a day off in Vienna the first thing I asked him was how he knew Ags.

I met Ags when he and Jack Grelle did a tour in the States a year or so back. They came to New Orleans and stayed at my house, Ags is really good, he’s got a great voice and great songs, he nails it. And then when I was in the UK last year I played a couple of shows with him.

I was really taken by your album Folk-Country-Blues and thought that it was your debut but looking at your website I see that you have an earlier mini album, Travelin’ Blues available.

 

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Yeah, that’s six songs I did in Georgia with upright bass and fiddle, no overdubs, just a couple of mics, the bare bones but I like to just capture the performance. Before that I had some demos I used to sell at shows but I’ve stopped printing them now I’ve these two discs.

So you recorded your first official disc in Georgia but then went to Germany to record Folk- Country-Blues?

 

Yeah, the owner of Blind Lemon Records saw me playing in North Carolina a few years back and after the show he came over and asked if I’d like to go to Germany to record an album so I said, “Sure, if you pay for it” and he said, “Of course!” And then at the start of this tour before we got on the road we went back into the German studios and recorded four songs which we’re planning to put out as a 45. And then when I get back to the States I’m going to record some more songs and again release them on vinyl so by the end of the year I’m hoping to have two 45s out.

You capture a fine old time feel and you mention folk like Jimmy Rodgers,  Charlie Poole and Lefty Frizzell as inspirations.

I really like stuff going back to the 1920’s when you had people like Jimmy Rodgers and Riley Puckett. You know white guys playing blues stuff and black guys playing white stuff and then there’s folk like Bob Wills and his Texas swing and then you go into the 1930’s and there’s Ernest Tubb and Floyd Tillman and I think that they all kind of started out from the same place and a lot of it goes back to Jimmy Rodgers.

So when did you start listening to music like that

I’m not really sure. My grandma played piano in the church and her aunt was a travelling vaudeville musician. So my grandma learned stuff from her and would not only play church tunes but would also play songs from the old days so I heard a lot of songs through her. The first show I went to was a Willie Nelson show in the nineties back when he was doing a lot of shows in farming communities as a part of Farm Aid. He played a show next to my grandma’s property and I really liked him and if you like Willie Nelson then you can backtrack with him into Texas music until you hit those singers like Tubbs and Frizzell and again back to Jimmy Rodgers. And through liking Willie I heard Merle haggard and that took me into the guys from the sixties. And listening to them I wondered what they liked, what they were listening to and so I looked into their influences. So really how I got into this music was really just backtracking.

When did you start playing?

I started playing guitar in my early teens but I remember writing little songs when I was just a kid. I remember singing little songs and writing them down and showing them to my sister and her then making fun of me. I’ve always thought that music and songs are a cool language, you know, writing your thoughts down and singing them and adding a melody. I’ve always loved doing that since I was young.

I read that you were living in Missouri but in 2009 you just decided to up sticks and go on the road so you just put all your possession on the kerbside and left.

Yeah. I’d been playing music for a couple of years by then. I’d quite often just travel. You know, jump in a car with my guitar and just go some place and I’d been doing that for several years but in 2009 I kind of just realised that I had to jump in all the way. There was no point in doing it just halfway so I just said that’s it. I took everything out of my house, put it on the kerb and within like five hours people came and took it away and I was ready to leave.

So did you have like a yard sale to get enough money to get up and go?

No, I just gave it away; it was just old furniture and stuff. I didn’t think about selling it but now you mention it maybe I should have. I’d saved up about $1200 but just a week before I was set on leaving I saw a Fender Rhodes piano on sale. It was $600 so I spent half my money buying that and I went from Missouri to California with the 600 I had left. I had an old white Chevy van and I loaded the piano, an amp and some other stuff and went off. I had a buddy who came along for a little bit. We went to California, spent some time out there and then I headed down to New Orleans.

So why New Orleans?

Well I went there in 2006 and then another couple of times before 2009 and I realised that you could make some money just playing in the streets in New Orleans, you don’t get harassed or arrested. And there’s just so much music there. Coming from Missouri, OK, there’s music there but nothing like what was going on in New Orleans. There’s music in the streets, all the nightclubs, and I realised I could live there pretty cheap. First year I was there I lived in my buddy’s kitchen. He had an apartment which was one room and a kitchen and a bathroom and he let me sleep underneath his kitchen table.

I’ve seen several videos of you busking. Do you have a regular group of people you play with or is it just whoever turns up?

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I knew what I wanted to do but it’s kind of hard to convince other  people to do it for basically no money so what happens is when I’m in New Orleans I use people who live there, when I’m in California I use people who live in California. I’ve just developed this thing where I can claw people in when it works for them. It’s a lot easier for someone in New Orleans to just play locally rather than ask them to travel all over the mid west for next to no money.

What about this tour you’re currently on? You’re going through Germany, Italy, France, Austria and Switzerland. Have you brought a band with you on that?

Yes. This is my fifth time over here and I’ve brought a fiddle player (Lyle Werner) and a steel guitar player (Nikolai Shveitser). We’re using local upright bass players for some of the shows and then for the last two weeks we’ve got a bass player from Italy. So some shows as a three piece but most as a four piece.

The pictures I’ve seen on Facebook look as though the shows are going well.

Well I just love playing Hillbilly music and we throw in some country, jazz and swing.  I mean basically it’s all the same stuff and we’re playing songs from the twenties through to the fifties, songs with lots of lyrical content and then ones you just want to dance to. So I think that if you’re young or old, no matter what your background, you can come along and enjoy the show.

On the album you have two cover songs, one by Jimmy Rodgers, and one by Gus Cannon. How did you go about picking those?

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Well I just love playing Jimmy Rodgers’ songs so there had to be one of those and the Gus Cannon song, well, Thomas had heard us play it and he wanted it on the record and if the boss man says he wants something I guess we gotta do it. It’s always good to have the boss man on your side.

And as you said earlier it was Thomas Schlieken who heard you play in a bar in the states and invited you over to record the album.

Yes, you never know how this crazy world works you know. Some of the biggest opportunities I’ve had have been in the most unlikely circumstances. I met the producer of my first disc at a farmer’s market in San Diego. His name is Mark Neill (producer of The Black Keys and Los straitjackets amongst others) and he’s helped me out ever since. It was just the sort of place where you’d never expect to meet someone like that. We were playing on a Thursday afternoon at this crappy farmers market. I’d found out that you could make some money just playing these farmers markets across the country, some are good and some not so good but this one was really terrible, we were standing in the glare of the sun in the dirt and sand and Mark saw us, you never know how this world works.

Serendipitous indeed. You must make a good impression if these guys just happen across you and say, “Hi, let’s make a record”.

Well I’m a big baseball fan and I just grew up knowing you can’t hit the ball if you just sit and wait. You got to get up to the plate and take your swing and you never know how it will work but you just need to give it your best swing and then you never know. So that’s what I’ve been doing. I was playing on my own and then as a duo, a trio and now there’s four or five in my band and the more people who see you  play and then maybe book you allows you to get more money to hire more people for the band and play more places. And people seem to like country music, the reason I’m in Vienna right now is that last time I was over here someone saw me and said, “I want you to come to Vienna next time”.

Any plans to come back to the UK anytime soon.

I’d love to. I plan to come to Europe at least once a year and I know that folk like Jack Grelle have a great time when they’re playing in Britain so I’d hope to come back hopefully next year. I’m hoping that these singles we’re bringing out get a few spins and spread the word. They’ll have a digital download code but I’m hoping people will like the singles themselves. That’s the way I listen to music, I don’t have a CD player so I listen to records and I think that more and more people are doing that. It’s a great experience, having your friends over and they go through your collection, to me that’s an ideal Friday night, let’s listen to records. It’s so much more tangible, singles, ten inchers and albums, I think people just like them.

So you’ve got a couple more dates in Europe and then it’s back to the States.

When we get back we’re going up to Cincinnati to play a Merle Haggard tribute and then it’s back to the west coast for a six-week tour so it’s a busy time of the year coming up.

We left Todd there but followed his tour adventures including two sold out nights in Paris. Hopefully he’ll make it to our shores in the not too distant future and there’s always the prospect of a couple of cool 45’s to look forward to.

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The working man’s blues – a chat with Nathan Bell

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Nathan Bell’s album I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love, released midway through 2016, featured heavily in many year end top ten lists, for a virtual unknown this side of the water an impressive task. Bell has a firm grasp on a folk roots sound with hints of country folded in as he sings of the dignity (and the plight) of the modern day USA working man. Following in a line from Woody Guthrie to Dylan, Steve Earle, Guy Clark and Springsteen, Bell’s songs burn with a smouldering sense of injustice and hurt, the American Dream laid bare, factories closing with folk having a hard scrapple existence. Despite the tribulations however there’s still a sense of dignity and pride, the victims as heroes.

I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love is the third album from the 56 year old Tennessee resident. Along with its predecessors, Blood like A River and Black Crow Blue it constitutes what he has called The Family Man Trilogy examining life today as a 50 something man, a family man and a working man. While the first two featured primarily Bell and his guitar on I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love he is accompanied by Missy Raines & the New Hip adding new dimensions to his sound. At its heart however is the voice and experience of a man who had a shot at Nashville back in the 80’s recording albums with his first wife before hanging out with the likes of Earle and Townes Van Zandt. It didn’t work out and Bell moved into white collar work forsaking music, remarrying and raising a family until the tectonic plates of capitalism shifted him into the ranks of the unemployed once more, the shifting ground finally settling when he once again picked up his guitar after almost two decades of silence.

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With such an intriguing story topped by the excellence of I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love, Blabber’n’Smoke was delighted when it was announced that Bell would be making his UK debut at Celtic Connections. An opportunity to speak with the man came up and we grabbed it with both hands so here is a conversation with Nathan Bell.

Hi there and congratulations on your album, it’s been really well received over here.

It’s done better across the pond than in the US and I appreciate that. Done well in the UK and also in Europe where they’re very keen on lyrics based music. Most of them speak English in the financially well off countries but it still surprises me that my albums seem to do best in countries where English is a second language.

You’ve played in Europe before so do you try to reciprocate and learn any of the languages over there?

Well, Dutch and German are so close together, when I was over there I was trying to speak in Dutch but I was pronouncing it like a German. My family line is Ukrainian and Dutch-German with something else in there somewhere.

But the Celtic Connections show is the first time you’ve played in the UK?

Yes. I’ve been to Edinburgh before but on a holiday. I had a tour in Holland and then my family came to meet me in Amsterdam and we got over to the UK. I have a friend who directs for the BBC in London so we came over and hung out and other than the fact that you can’t set foot in London without giving them all your money we had a great time!  We then came up to Edinburgh. Where I come from on the East coast of the States a lot of the people come from Scotland.

 I don’t do a lot of touring. I made a decision early on that I wasn’t going to do a lot of small shows and be away for several weeks. Partly it’s because I’m too old to do that, I mean put me on the road for  20 days and I’m dead, after two weeks I need a day off. And my music, it’s wordy, dense and there’s only a certain kind of audience who will come to that so if I can find that audience then I’ll book a short tour around them so I get to play really high quality places. But the life of a 19 year old in a band, that’s not me. I’m up there on stage on my own and I’m not bragging when I say I’m quite an accomplished guitar player and I know what will do well in front of an audience that’s paying attention.

I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love is said to be the third part of a trilogy of albums.

It is a trilogy of sorts. Record companies and PR folk tend to shy away from the use of that word because we’ve become such a short-term society that people are only interested in what is current but I started these records as a trilogy and if there was an over arching title for it would be the Family Man Trilogy. It starts out with Black Crow Blue which is about the single man in America, Blood Like a River is about the family and this new one is about working and it’s been about a four or five year process.

Much of the new album seems to be about people working or not working in what I suppose we call the rustbelt, the steel industry and such, people who have been having such a rough time of it recently.

Yes, these are jobs which will never come back. People say they will but they won’t other than in a boutique sort of way. There’s a company called Nucor Steel which recycles steel but the big plants are gone, we’re never going to make the level of steel that they do in China. We’re in a funny position in that the money moved up and it didn’t get replaced by anything. I’ve worked since I was eleven years old and I’ve experienced that first hand.

I know that you were in Nashville in the 80’s but that didn’t work out and you eventually ended up working in the telecommunications business.

In 1991 I came to Nashville. It didn’t work out but I kind of knew that from the moment I got there. I had a publishing contract and I was working with the producer Richard Bennet who worked with Steve Earle on Guitar Town. Richard became a good friend. But even in the process of getting all these things together, contacts and such that for some some people takes years of work to get hold of,  as soon as I got to Nashville I realised that this wasn’t necessarily what I was wanting and that they had a business model that wasn’t for me. It wasn’t their fault that I couldn’t be in their business model and you can only blame them if you did exactly what they told you to do and it didn’t work out. I never did that. So after about six months I was treading water and after two years I was out.

I accidentally ended up in telecommunications working with cell phones right at the point when everybody was starting to buy them. Then the company downsized as they always do so I was out for about a year. I got back then into the same business doing a different job but the parameters had changed so much and there were some ethical compromises I wasn’t willing to make. I tried to hold on to the job for as long as I could as I had a family growing up. If you have to make a living you make a living.  I mean they weren’t asking me to do anything that was evil or illegal it was just getting harder and harder to be successful without going into some gray areas which I wasn’t willing to do.

And all this time you were away from music, not playing or performing. I read some story about your wife one day setting up a guitar in your garage.

I didn’t play from around 1994 until 2008 and then a friend of mine, a songwriter called Don Henry invited me to a show he was doing and called me up on stage to do two songs. I could barely dredge them up, I was terrible; you know people always tell you it wasn’t that bad but it was that bad. And then after that I had to go on a business trip and when I got back my wife had a set up for me in this closet under the stairs, a tape player and a guitar and I’ve made most of these albums in that closet. It’s like a half closet with an angled roof but it’s got the sort of sound you would get in a $50,000 studio, I mean I couldn’t recreate this set up and sound for less than 50,000 bucks. And you know it’s like an aging football player, you put him in an over 50’s league and he starts thinking his glory days are going to come back and that was me.

Well according to a lot of folk over here those glory days are happening right now for you.

Yeah, I like that but I’m not as quick as these young guys anymore.

OK, but young guys, unless they are very gifted don’t have a lot to sing about. You’ve got a lifetime of experiences.

Well, the young ones are probably going to sing about girls or boys. For me, I come from a literary background and I would have liked to have written long fiction or long journalism if I wasn’t so bad at it. So I ended up writing short. I wanted to be Steinbeck or Jack London but you could only be those guys if you have experience. It was probably good for me to be out of it and doing everything else. Plus I love my life; I’ve always said that if the business had stayed relatively the same and I was able to do what I wanted to do then I wouldn’t be doing this because those years were wonderful, just wonderful. This just happens to be the next step.

The next step perhaps but folk are comparing you to the likes of Van Zandt and Earle and I thought that many of your songs inhabit the same territory as the likes of Rod Picott.

Wonderful compliments. Anytime anyone wants to compare me to writers like that or to some literary figures then I can handle that. As for Rod I know him, I bump into him from time to time. He’s the genuine deal, he comes from a real working man’s background so him and Slaid (Cleaves) know what they’re talking about. I respect what he does a great deal.

In terms of that your working career was in selling cell phones and working in middle management. So what gives you the insight or the ability to write about steel mill workers living in a rusty shack with their lives falling apart?

Well I didn’t have very much money most of my younger years. I mean I wasn’t poor, I had enough to eat but I wasn’t able to spend money like someone who was middle class. I spent about 19 years with the phone company and that’s about half of my adult life. The rest of that time I was doing jobs in the docks and in construction and in hotels and then later with the phone company  I have always been around people doing different jobs so all those conversations alone have been helpful in what I’m writing about now. I’ve been there working 80 hours a week picking up heavy stuff but I’m too old for that now, it’s cost me a shoulder and a knee.

You mentioned wanting to write like Steinbeck or Jack London. What draws you to writers?

My father is Marvin Bell and he’s at least a relatively well-known poet, he’s 79 now and he just drove off from here a few minutes before we started to speak. So I grew up around the writing department at the University of Iowa, it was my school so to speak and I guess that’s one of the reasons I didn’t go to University as  it had been such a big part of my childhood. My father and all his friends were writers and most of my friends outside the music business are writers.

I believe that you knew Studs Terkel.

Yeah. When I met him he was older of course and we weren’t what I would call close but he was in the Chicago folk circle which was very vibrant back in the eighties. I would run into him and talk to him. There aren’t that many people that I think of as being larger than life but  his book (Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, 1974) changed the way that everbody looked at the study of work. It was a real pleasure just to have known him and to have talked to him.

Terkel worked very much in an oral tradition, is that what you’re trying to do?

Well, I’m trying to tell my stories honestly. If you look at them then you’ll see that almost none of them take the arc of promising something, well, ethereal. I’m actually a really happy optimistic guy but I see the life we’re living, the jobs we do, the reality of it.  Part of what we’ve lost in the world and with social media especially is that we’ve lost the way the oral tradition protected us, the way the folk world told stories that fostered a sense of community. If you listen to an Irish band, a Scottish band, a Cape Breton band or a blues band they’re playing music that you can understand in a form that’s fairly similar and their stories are just their own stories and I think that the folk tradition of songwriting is critical. My next album will be the first one that talks expressly about love but it won’t talk about love like say, Gerry and The Pacemakers (who I quite like), it’ll be my own weird dark version of it.

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On I Don’t Do This For Love you’ve got Missy Raines and her band playing with you. How did that come about?

I’ve known Missy for a long time, since 1986 or so, and she and her band came through our town and I heard them play and I thought this was one shot at getting a band like this on a record. These days bands don’t stick together, they have to be off earning somewhere all the time so now Ethan Ballinger, the guitar player is playing with Lee Ann Womack and Jarrod Walker is playing with Claire Lynch. But I got to have them for a couple of days in the studio and we recorded everything but the harmony vocals so for the most part it’s the five of us playing live in the studio. They’re wonderful musicians so all I had to do was stand there and get my part right.

As you said earlier, the songs are honest tales about working men. I was particularly taken by Jesus Of Gary, Indiana. Just reading the lyrics is impressive.

Thanks, I appreciate that compliment, it’s one of my favourites. I do work very hard to make the lyrics stand up without the music. They’re not poems but I think if you read them the cadence is there, the rhythm is there, the story is there and if it’s not then I won’t record it.

Speaking of poetry what are your thoughts on Dylan’s Nobel Prize?

Dylan is so important to what happened to song writing and the oral tradition. The only reason people are mad at him is because writers get mad when they don’t win awards so they’re all pissing ad moaning because it wasn’t one of them that got the award. The truth is that what Dylan did was exceptional, extraordinary. Some of his lyrics, if you go in and listen to them and read them it is literature.

America’s about to enter the Trump age. Are you still optimistic about the future?

Always. You know half of my family is Jewish so even us being here means that I’m optimistic. It’s only been 60 to 70 years since they stopped chasing us out of every country in the world. Optimism isn’t about everything’s going to be great. It’s if you do the work and you fight the fight and you’re honest and don’t pretend that things aren’t what they are that you can advance the cause of humanity.

I get that in your songs. The characters, despite the hardships, they are survivors.

Well, the way I see it, here’s an example. Leicester City wins the premiership and they won it with a bunch of guys everyone else had given up on. The secret is, if you’re here, you got a chance, if you show up you got a chance. If you hide in the corner and complain all the time then you got no chance.

Nathan Bell makes his UK debut at Celtic Connections on Thursday 2nd February at Oran Mor. He’s also performing on these dates.

Mon 6: Woodend Gallery Scarborough
Tues 7: The Green Note, London
Thurs 9: Drovers Arms, Puncheston, Haverfordwest
Fri 10: The Forge, Anvil Arts, Basingstoke

Website

 

Chatting with Erin Rae

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Erin Rae’s album debut album Soon Enough, released on Clubhouse Records earlier this year was a reminder (as if we needed one) that Nashville is not only an inexhaustible well of talent but it also has the ability to surprise us. I don’t think that anyone would categorise Ms. Rae as typically Nashville, a song like the excellent Clean Slate seeming to cling more to the era of LA troubadours.

With some excellent reviews for the album under her belt Rae is embarking on a major tour of the UK over the next four weeks (all dates here) which will include some shows with her label mate Cale Tyson. On the eve of embarking for the tour she took some time out to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke.

Hi there,
Can I ask you about the opening and closing tracks on the album? They bookend it really well but there’s a different feel, I think, to them than the rest of the album, the vocals more elaborate. Was that deliberate?

Hi! Yes, Light Parts 1 & 2 I think came from a different side of my writing from several years ago. My friend John Furr initially created this beautiful arrangement of the song on his own and surprised me with it. So when we started planning a record I knew I wanted to use that song to tie the whole thing together. The sentiment of the song is empathy for another person’s experience, which is a lot of the basis of the entire record. Cori Bechler, one of the first people I collaborated with creatively, wrote the vocal parts for Part 2. There is also a nod to the first EP Crazy talk. 

You seem to mix an “introspective” type of song writing with a sweet, countrified rhythm, a sound that really comes to the fore on the title song to Soon Enough. I was reminded of Janis Ian and The McGarrigles at times. Are these artists you’ve listened to?

I have not heard The McGarrigles as yet though since the release of our album in the UK I have heard a few folks say there is a similar feeling. I’ll have to listen to them now before we arrive. Janis Ian was not someone I was super familiar with until I was 20 or so. My voice teacher and mentor Phoebe Binkley was a friend of hers and I actually have a signed copy of Janis’s autobiography on my shelf that she gave to Phoebe. The more I’ve learned about her, the greater the compliment of a comparison is. What a brave artist. I hope I can channel some of that. 

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The album was apparently recorded “live” over just two days. Had you and the band been playing the songs for a while?

We had! Most of the songs we had played for at least a year, some of them a little longer but on a couple of them we hadn’t played them before. However, we had been playing together for about 5 years at that point, so even on the newer tunes they felt good pretty quick.

There was a five year gap between your EP release and the album. Was this a case of trying to get a record deal or getting enough songs together for an album?

I think it was a case of early “adulthood”:) Or late childhood depending on the perspective. I was in the midst of writing songs while also living out my early 20s and learning a ton about how to be a person. It’s a messy age, so it just took a while. I think it took about that long for me to shape complete ideas and live those stories out enough to write them. And I think it was just a three year gap! Maybe four for the UK audience. 

Are many of the songs “autobiographical?” I’m thinking of Sleep Away and Minolta for example.

For sure. Most of the songs are, with the exception of Pretty Thing which is a story built from a feeling. 

You grew up in a musical family. What are your earliest memories of hearing music and can you say who your main influences are?

My earliest memories of music are my dad playing with his friend Willie X at Davis Kidd and events around Jackson, TN, and then with my mom in our kitchen. My dad used to do this song called “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke” and I got up at Davis Kidd to sing with him when I was five. “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke that cigarette. Puff, puff, puff until you puff yourself to death! Tell Saint Peter at the pearly gates, that you hate to make him wait, you just gotta have another cigarette”. Hahaha! These little old ladies laughed so hard and tipped us like 20 dollars each.

I think my main influences are my parents along with Greg brown, Kate Campbell, Gillian & Dave, and all those artists that my parents sang songs by. There’s also Nanci Griffith, John Prine, Kate Wolf and Doc Watson. So many! 

You are touring the UK soon. Have you played here before and will you have a band playing with you?

I have only played a couple of shows in Scotland (with Louis of Admiral Fallow) and I played in Switzerland in years past. This will actually be my first time to England and my first official tour in Scotland and I’m so excited about it. I’ll have my trusted friends and players Dominic Billett & Jerry Bernhardt with me for all the dates. Can’t wait!

Erin Rae’s tour starts October 25th in High Wycombe and it concludes with four Scottish dates in November where she will be appearing with Cale Tyson.

Carrie Rodriguez and The Golden Era of Mexican Music.

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Texan Carrie Rodriguez first came to most folks’ attention when she teamed up with Chip Taylor back in the early noughties, the pair recording four albums together. She then carved out a successful solo career with her debut album, 2006’s Seven Angels On A Bicycle quickly followed by another six discs leading one writer to describe her as perhaps, “The hardest-working woman in American roots music.” An appellation that’s borne out when you dig around into the background of her latest (and in the opinion of many, her best) album, Lola, released earlier this year. The album is a result of Rodriguez delving into her Mexican family roots, a project she has been considering for some time, the fact that she was more than midway through a pregnancy when she recorded the album no hindrance. Happily, she and her partner Luke Jacobs are now the proud parents of their son Cruz while Lola, their sonic offspring is also thriving.

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Lola consists of Rodriguez’s settings of classic Mexican songs; rancheras and boleros, reclaimed from the past along with several of her own songs which were inspired and informed by her listening to the crackly past. The originals are sung in Spanish, her own songs in Spanish and English. The result a collection of songs, some languid, some passionate, all delivered by her crack assemblage, The Sacred Hearts who include Jacobs, Bill Frisell and Viktor Krauss. It’s a magnificent celebration of her Mexican heritage, not dissimilar from some of Ry Cooder’s recent efforts, while it’s not afraid to address current issues that have been stirred up concerning the plight and fortunes of Mexican American citizens.

Ms. Rodriguez is coming to the UK in November offering us a chance to hear these remarkable songs in a live setting and she took some time out to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke about the album and its conception. It all started when she was given a collection of songs recorded by her great aunt, Eva Garza, back in the 1940’s. So first of all we asked her about this and why it eventually led to Lola.

Eva was my grandmother’s older sister and she got her start singing on a programme in the ’40s called Voice of America. It was a radio show that was broadcast all over the world where American troops were stationed and her first gigs were at Radio City Music Hall singing in Spanish. I didn’t really get to hear her music until my grandmother gave me a bunch of her songs taken from old scratchy recordings that had been transferred onto CD. She gave me them when I was in my early twenties and I remember I was living in New York at the time and the moment I heard them I was literally brought to tears. She has this gorgeous big alto voice and the type of music she was singing was very dramatic, ballads and boleros with very melodramatic lyrics and big orchestras behind her, strings, woodwind, trumpets. I was completely blown away that this was my relative although I never met her. She was quite a bit older than my grandmother and she died very young, just in her early forties when she passed away. She was a family legend of course but I probably thought that my grandmother had exaggerated her until I actually  heard her and I was just so moved by her music and her passion so that’s what started my journey into thinking about singing in Spanish. It’s been many years, I started singing one song in Spanish as an encore in my shows and little by little I got braver, I added some more songs in and eventually I worked up to the place where I could make this record.

So the album has been in the making in your mind for a number of years then?

Yes. Maybe for the past seven or eight years I’ve been thinking about doing this, making an album of Spanish songs but I didn’t quite feel ready. I really didn’t know what it would be, I knew I wanted to record an album and I had started to dig into some old songs and I really did think that the album would all be in Spanish. In the end however I wound up writing half of the songs because it just didn’t feel quite authentic to me to make an entire album of classic songs even though they’re adorable to me, these old ranchera songs. I thought I had to introduce more of myself into the album and so I added my songs which in the end turned out to be sort of “Spanglish.”

The album opens with Perfidia, a song that’s fairly well known as its been covered by the likes of Glenn Miller and Linda Rondstadt but the other covers are much more obscure. How did you go about selecting the songs?

Well after listening to my great aunt, I started researching into these old songs and learning more about other artists of her time. I’d listen to her singing and see who wrote the song, say, Cuco Sanchez, one of the greatest Mexican writers so I’d look up Cuco Sanchez and see who else had covered his songs. Just through listening to my great aunt I discovered so many wonderful artists that I now listen to all the time, people like Chavela Vargas, Lydia Mendoza, Javier Solis and Lola Beltran. It really was a golden era of Mexican music that went all the way through to the sixties, they called it  “Época de Oro“, the golden era and it wasn’t just the music, Mexican films were being made in Hollywood, really big productions and the music was part of that. So I dug through all of that and found my favourite songs which weren’t necessarily the most popular ones. But Perfidia is definitely the most recognisable one and the version I find most inspiring is the one by Trio Los Panchos which has the most incredible harmonies all the way through. And from the moment I knew I wanted to cover Perfidia I also knew that I wanted Raul Malo to sing with me on it.  I just thought it has to be Raul and of course he did it. I was so thrilled that he said yes.

Of course the words for these songs are in Spanish and they often tell a tale, usually fuelled by love, lust or treachery. When you’re playing them live do you explain the stories to the audience?

I do because I don’t expect everyone to be fluent in Spanish. So I explain the story and one of the interesting things that came to me over the course of doing the album was how many parallels there are between Mexican ranchera music and American country music. For example I did a song called Que Manera De Perder which means What A Way To Lose. It’s a bilingual duet on the album and the first time I heard it I couldn’t believe how much it sounded like a Merle Haggard song, one of his really sad songs like Today I Started Loving You Again. You know, the kind of song that makes you want to stay up too late and drink and cry and look at old photos. So I like explaining the songs and pointing out the similarities. I think that these days it’s really important to point out the similarities between our countries because we’re just so insanely divided right now.

There are a couple of your songs that address these issues head on. Llano Estacado is about the plight of immigrants into the USA and West Side recalls a sort of schoolyard apartheid with Mexican kids shunned by the white kids. Why did you put these songs into what is essentially an album of old love songs?

Diving into the older songs and singing them in Spanish brought about some feelings, memories and such that I really wasn’t aware were in there. Thinking about how I grew up, what it was like when I was growing up, what it felt like to be half Mexican American, half Anglo American and living on the west side which was the Anglo side of the tracks. I hadn’t thought about my school since I was a kid but as I was working on the record the memory came back and I sat down and wrote the song (West Side) in like 10 minutes. It was something that had been sitting there but hadn’t been brought to the surface until I started looking back at these old songs and it kind of got mixed in with the way things are right now. So some of the songs do have that sort of political slant and even though it’s kind of strange to have them there along with these romantic ballads I think the album is a reflection of who I am, my culture, my roots. I think it’s an authentic representation of me.

And of course Chip Taylor has just released a new song with you, Who’s Gonna Build That Wall, which addresses one of these issues head on.

That’s an amazing song. Chip just wrote that recently and we were touring Canada and decided to record it because it’s so timely. We really wanted people to hear it so I know Chip’s doing everything he can to get it out there before the election.

The album is beautifully played and sung and very evocative of the images and sounds that many of us have of Mexico. Images gleaned from Hollywood of hot cantinas and Latin passion. How long did you and the band spend on working up the arrangements?

Luke and I did a lot of the work together before the band showed up so we had the basic arrangements. Luke’s background is more rock and pop so it was a nice juxtaposition for these classic Mexican songs. I wanted to have a “mariachi” sound of sorts but I also wanted it to be something modern, kind of culturally mixed up. I didn’t want to just play the songs as they originally sounded so we started off with the arrangements Luke and I did and then the band got together for about four or five days before we went and recorded the songs live in the studio. The only overdubs were a little bit of pedal steel at the end. It was so much fun and this is the first record I’ve made where I didn’t need to fix any vocals afterwards, it’s all just live takes as I was inspired by the music and the band around me. I was also seven months pregnant and I think that also inspired me having this little life in my belly dancing around as I was singing.

The album certainly reminds me of some of Ry Cooder’s recent work, Chavez Ravine and his album with the Cuban Manuel Galbán, Mambo Sinuendo.

I have’t heard those albums but I’ve got Ry Cooder’s Talking Timbuktu which he recorded with Ali Farka Touré  and of course Buena Vista. So I don’t know too much about his work but I like the comparison. The idea of getting Bill Frisell in was too make something completely new and to take these classic songs into outer space. For example, on the instrumental take of Si No Te Vas I worked up an arrangement where I was thinking of a Phillip glass type figure in it that took it somewhere else, like we were up there with no ground to stand on and when we recorded it just exceeded my expectations of it, it does sound otherworldly to me.

We’re looking forward to hearing these songs when you tour the UK in November. Who will be playing with you on stage?

It will be Luke and me. We’ve toured as a duo in the UK many times and we’ve been playing these songs as a duo over here in the States. They come across really well and of course Luke’s got his lap steel which adds a lot of atmosphere. So it’s Luke and me and we’re bring our son, Cruz and my mom who is the granny nanny, it’s a family affair

Carrie’s UK tour starts in Birmingham on 3rd November ending in Edinburgh on 17th with a Glasgow show on the 16th November. All dates are here.

Austin Lucas On Why Sad Songs Are Here To Stay

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For those in the know Between The Moon and The Midwest by Austin Lucas is one of the finest albums released this year. It’s an album that tugs in two directions. There are chunks of tough country music and then there’s a shimmering, almost psychedelic sheen to several of the songs. Sound familiar? Well when the album was released back in February, several reviewers compared it to Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, in particular with the song Turtles All The Way Down. Good company for sure but in the end it’s a shorthand way of saying that both artists are at the forefront of reclaiming country music from the plethora of truck’n’beer’n’broads crap that’s been masquerading as country over the past few years.

Based in Indiana Lucas had a punk rock background before edging into his country sound on albums such as Somebody Loves You and A New Home In The Old World. His 2013 album Stay Reckless was considered by many to be his best but it coincided with a collision of personal and business problems that almost derailed him. Amidst a failing marriage and bouts of anxiety and depression his record label dropped him saying they didn’t hear any singles on the album. Cast adrift Lucas could have sank but instead he’s back, leaner and fitter and with a new label who believe in him and in the record. Between The Moon and The Midwest, recorded with Joey Kneiser from Glossary and featuring appearances from John Moreland, Lydia Loveless and Cory Branan is a tremendous slice of modern country and Lucas is touring the UK over the next few weeks promoting the album. An opportunity then for Blabber’n’Smoke to talk to the man about the album and its torturous conception. First of all we asked him about those comparisons to Sturgill Simpson.

I think there are several comparisons that can be made considering that we’re both legitimate country artists who are trying to push the boundaries of what the genre can be. Although it may be worth mentioning that his releasing Metamodern Sounds very nearly derailed the making of Between The Moon and The Midwest. I got pretty worried when I first heard Turtles All The Way Down reckoning that he’d already done the thing that I was in the middle of working on. However, in the end I decided to allow it to hearten me. Firstly, it showed that there was interest in this style of music. Secondly, his wasn’t a concept album. Nor was it psychedelic all the way through. Merely one song and a couple of small hints at psychedelia scattered throughout. Therefore, I felt I was still innovating the genre in a way that he hadn’t exactly done with his album. 

While people have honed in on the psychedelic aspect of the album at heart there’s a lot of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings in the album. Are they big influences on you?

Of course they are. In my mind, they are two of the greatest and most innovative artists from that period in country music or any other genre. These are two guys who pushed more boundaries than anyone else and who did things their own way. In many ways, they’re role models for me and who and what I want to be and how I want to do things.

Some of the characters reappear throughout the album, is it a concept album, were you trying to tell a story?

Yeah, I actually came up with the concept for the album under the influence of a very special brownie, in the desert while on tour with Willie Nelson in 2011. It’s a love story about 3 best friends and how they miscommunicate, hurt each other and eventually ruin each other’s lives.

You open the album with Unbroken Hearts singing, ““I’ve been told to walk away nearly every time I make an album. I hear there’s no good men left, everyone in Nashville’s deaf, sad songs are a thing of the past.” I read that actually happened to you when you took the album to your previous label. The album’s been out for about eight month’s now so are there people out there wanting to hear “sad songs?”

There are absolutely people who want to hear sad songs and I am glad to say that I think there will always be people of quality who are interested in real songs. Truthfully though, since we’re on the subject, the song isn’t an indictment of the world at large, or even music row. It’s simply something that I wrote because I find the large scale music industry overall to be sort of unnecessary. There are many artists who court mainstream success but I’m not one of them. I exist in a world where that’s never been a desire or even an option. I’ve always existed on the fringes of the music world. Even within the scenes that I play in I’ve generally been an outsider. As a result I’m no stranger to the fact that, there has always been and always will be a place for independent artists, people who make extensive bodies of work for nothing more than the need to do so. My records or career may not ever have big money behind them. But quality music always finds fans and since I’m not interested in being a pop star music row is something that exists outside of my career equation. To be direct in a way that I haven’t been before, the words to that song in particular were only meant to shine a small amount of light on exactly that. The idea that these traditions of great song writing and storytelling would die after all these years is ludicrous. I think most of us know that, at least my friends and I know that. So I wrote it as a tongue in cheek battle cry of sorts. Nothing more, nothing less. 

You’re on a new record label, Last Chance, who have a deal with At The Helm in the UK. Are you able to say anything about them in terms of releasing albums that some major labels don’t see as hit material. After all, there is something of a resurgence in a more traditional country and songwriter form at present.

There is no question that they release a lot of stuff which would not be considered to be viable from a commercial standpoint. Certainly they are benefactors of the arts and in that way, I’m very proud to be a part of their team. 

The album and its predecessor Stay Reckless were recorded when you were going through a rocky patch, your marriage ending and such. I hope it’s not glib of me to ask if you subscribe to the notion that “break up” albums bring out the best in an artist?

I have no idea. I think that turmoil is well documented as being extremely fertile artistic soil though I’d rather not hypothesize on whether one must be in an aggravated or depressed state of being in order to make great art. To me, I think it’s simply a matter of staying hungry and being interested in getting better at your craft that should propel one to ever greater musical endeavours. 

You’re touring here with The Dreaming Spires who will be your backing band as well as playing their own support slot. It’s an interesting prospect and I was wondering what your thoughts are on what they’ll add to your sound.

I met them last year in the States during Americana fest through our shared UK label At The Helm. We got along very well and I quickly grew to respect them musically as well as personally. I have no question that they’ll have an effect on my sound and that’s exciting to me. The beauty of playing with new and different people is that freshness that you can get on old songs. Every new set of ears hears things in a different way and therefore, you can quickly find yourself in new musical territory. I’m excited to explore what those talented guys are going to show me about of my own songs. 

Before we go can you tell us anything about any future plans?

Just gotta get back into the studio and work on another album. Hopefully that will happen in the next half a year or so. 

Well, thanks and the best of luck with the tour. austinlucas_euro2016-800x565

Austin Lucas with The Dreaming Spires tour the UK and Ireland starting in Oxford on the 15th October with a Glasgow date at Broadcast on the 18th October. All dates are here.