Friday
Sep082017

Clare Sands Interview 

I was transported back a number of decades at The Harbour Bar in Bray a few weeks ago by a powerful performance of what used to be described as Celtic Fusion back in the day before buzz genres such as alt-folk, indie folk and New Age folk became the vogue. The occasion was a show by the Clare Sands Band, a Cork-based young artist who had been highly recommended to me by a number of reliable sources.  An outstanding fiddle player who also plays electric and acoustic guitar and possess a beautifully potent vocal style  was accompanied on stage by a four piece band, equally youthful yet playing like seasoned veterans.  Featuring material from her 2016 album Join Me At The Table and a number of well-chosen covers their ninety minute set was outstanding. Their sound is a blend of folk, blues infused jazz and traditional, superbly executed. Self-assured, bubbly and with an infectious personality Lonesome Highway took the opportunity to chat with Sands, a young lady with melody, rhythm and verse ingrained in her genes and endless potential in wherever her musical career takes her.

You seem to have the perfect career and lifestyle balance combining teaching, session playing, support artist, performing and recording with your own band. A full-on schedule without doubt but well structured. Was this your game plan?

I wouldn’t say ‘Perfect’- more like intense, hectic! I never had a huge game plan. But I knew from day one that I wanted to play as much as possible, and release an album under my own name. I don’t like to rely 100 % on gigs for income- thus the balance I have finally achieved with teaching, music therapy, session work etc. It keeps me interested. I’m interested in a lot musically, and in other walks of life, so I have to keep it new and exciting.  Ironically enough, the Leaving Certificate points came out yesterday- I had Music and Italian, or Law and French. I went with the music! 

Am I correct in saying that you are the fifth generation of fiddle players in your family?

6th! No escape. All Dad’s side are fiddlers, songwriters. Mom’s side are pianists, singers.

Aside from the obvious inspiration from family members what other musicians have influenced your playing style?

I’ve found myself inspired by a variety of different genres and musicians. I’m a huge fan of Gypsy Jazz (The music of Django Reinhardt & Stephane Grappelli). I also love Latin music, in particular anything from Cuba. The rhythms are incredible. The musicians barely think- yet they can do things us Westerners can’t even dream of.  I love rhythm...Something these two genres are steeped in. 

When did Clare Sands the musician become Clare Sands the songwriter and which writers would have had the greatest impact on you?

I wrote my first song when I was 14 and learning to play the guitar. A song called Hear My Call which was all about homelessness in Ireland. Something or somebody must have affected my subconscious. After that, I just kept writing. It was a good way to deal with feelings, and what was going on around me. But as you get older, your songwriting definitely starts to change, and it’s not all about YOU! I loved poetry growing up, and still do, in particular Irish poets like Kavanagh and Heaney. I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan, and have acquired a recent obsession with Leonard Cohen, after reading a book of his poetry when I was in Guatemala. Strange guy. Master of the Pen. I also love two Cork men’s writing, John Spillane and Mick Flannery. Nothing is as it seems in their songs. I find that I write my best when I’m travelling. New experiences, new people, new cultures. I guess I’ll just have to keep jetting off if I want to keep writing!

Your musical style strays away from traditional, embracing both blues and jazz in equal measures, what I would describe as genuine Celtic Fusion without introducing a soft pop core centre. Did the motivation come from any particular artists consciously steering you in this direction?

Thanks! That’s a nice compliment. Consciously, no. I think it’s more to do with music I was immersed in growing up. I would listen to my Dad playing tunes in the house at night, but listen to Rodgrigo Y Gabriela (two Spanish guitarists) on the way to school. UCC also affected my playing hugely. I had a fantastic Jazz teacher-Tommy Tucker-who I really admire. My band also contributes hugely to the ‘Celtic Fusion’ sound. My keys/sax player Dylan Howe, is probably the best musician I know. He knows which chords to use, and puts them in the right places. Dylan and I have been playing for a long time together, as well as guitarist Kevin Herron. I feel we are extremely in synch with each other, and the two Fionns on bass and drums never miss anything.

Unlike the annoying tendency of many artists to ‘create’ a vocal style your delivery emphasises your natural accent which is refreshing, similar in many ways to that of Mary Coughlan. Was it a conscious decision to avoid adopting a ‘singing accent’?

I’ve thought about this a lot, and changed my opinion many a time. Firstly, I wouldn’t call it ‘annoying’. Everyone to their own. When children are listening to the radio, they imitate the accents of the singers they hear. All of my students sing in English Ed Sheeran accents! Some musicians also do this as adults, maybe from growing up hearing American accents constantly on their parent’s records. It’s nearly ingrained in them. I have no problem with it. I listened to a lot of American music growing up, but also to a lot of Irish singers- Karen Casey, Mary Coughlan, Mary Black. So maybe I slipped through ‘that’. I did make a conscious decision. When I listen back to my first single there is a twang of an American accent. I don’t know when I decided ‘Why am I singing in that accent’ but I did, and haven’t looked back. It’s too much effort to put on an accent- I’ve enough going on in my head! I’m also ridiculously proud of this fine island. I’ve been in eleven different countries this year as far away as Mexico, but Ireland has something very beautiful about it. I would like anyone that listens to my music to know that I am from Ireland.

I was hugely impressed with the band that accompanied you on stage on your recent Irish tour. Are these your regular band members and can you name check them?

Sure. Yes, they are my band members, and sometimes we have an additional percussionist, Paul Leonard. I mentioned them above, but to reiterate - Dylan Howe is on the keys/sax/vocals, and whatever else he can get his hands on. Multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist. Kevin Herron on electric guitar, sometimes dobro, and vocals. Funkiest guitar player around, and a fantastic singer. Fantastic rhythm. Fionn O'Neill on bass, sometimes guitar, vocals. New addition, and ‘A Rock!’ Fionn Hennessy Hayes on drums and vocals. Fionn is fantastic. Because he’s not ‘a drummer’, he picks up on my right hand of the guitar, and most importantly, listens. He can be as rock 'n’ roll as you want, or sit there and play a song on symbols.

With an increasingly over crowded market internationally and a small Irish market how does an artist like you best market yourself going forward and do you foresee yourself dropping the day job and pursuing a professional performing career at some stage?

I don’t know, to be honest with you. Definitely need to keep social media up and running. Make good videos. Try get as much airplay as possible and tour as much as I can. It’s really like building a house!  Always building. It’s been an extremely busy year. I’ve been happy with everything that’s happened. I released the album last October, and have toured with some great Irish names as well as my own tours, and getting airplay on album tracks. It’s not so bad for a 23 year old, I suppose. I’m ridiculously hard on myself- and will never be fully content- but that makes it very easy to be driven. Won’t ever give up the day job (I say this now!) I don’t think music is a very sustainable or healthy business. There are the few exceptions (The Beatles, Dylan etc.) but I feel everybody has a ‘use by’ date. I’m not being negative- I think it’s a logical train of thought, especially with how music has gone.  Even if you become the next U2, I don’t think I’ll want to be touring in forty years time. And for those that do, fair play! I’m a woman of simplicity, and I like my freedom. My goal is to start my PhD soon (music related - ha!) and take it from there

Are you working on a follow up to your 2016 Join Me At The Table or simply drawing breath and enjoying the opportunity to tour the album at present?

I’m enjoying the touring immensely. I have a new live video coming out soon and dates coming out of my ears till next December. Anything is possible. I might even go back and do Law!

Interview by Declan Culliton

Monday
Aug282017

Christopher Rees Interview

Christopher Rees is a Welsh born and based solo artist, singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, band leader, producer and record label director. He performs both with a full band and in a solo capacity. To date he has released 7 full length albums, The Sweetest Ache (2004), Alone On A Mountain Top (2005), Cautionary Tales (2007), Devil's Bridge (2009), Heart On Fire (2011) Stand Fast (2013) and his just releaswd album The Nashville Songs. To get some background on his latest Music City based album and life in general Lonesome Highway recently had the opportunity to catch up with Christopher.

What does Nashville mean to you now in a musical sense given that it is often seen as the home of the mainstream?
I realised very soon after my first visit, that Nashville is now much more than just the home of Country Music. It’s fair to say that it really is ‘Music City USA’ as it claims to be, mainly because of the sheer amount of talent that is there and on display in every venue. It’s pretty jaw dropping. Yes, it’s still the home of country music and quite rightly celebrates its amazing musical heritage and tradition, but there is a lot more going on away from Lower Broadway or Music Row. I really have no connection or concept of what is going on with what they now call ‘Mainstream Country Music’, because in many cases I just don’t hear it as country music. It’s can often be soft rock, pop or even hip hop dressed up with a sprinkling of fiddle or banjo. A lot of these ‘mainstream hits’ are written by people who don’t necessarily write ‘country songs’. Nashville is certainly a central hub for the practise of ‘song writing’ and a good song can translate into any genre of music. 
 
Personally, I was attracted to Nashville because of its historical musical legacy through people like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. It’s hard to escape it when you walk around. So, in a musical sense that will always be more important to me. There is also a big resurgence in traditional old timey style country music and songwriters who have that authentic spirit which I’m really attracted to.
  
How important has been location (and your Welsh upbringing) in your overall musical direction?
It’s difficult to say. I am a very proud Welshman and certainly feel at home in Wales but my musical inspiration has always come from elsewhere. Yes, I love Tom Jones and John Cale but I think it’s fair to say that their inspiration or influences also came from outside of Wales. There is no disputing the power of a good male voice choir or the beauty of a Welsh harp but I never really connected with that music like I did Rock’n’Roll, Country or Soul music. It always felt more direct and immediate. I think it’s very common when you grow up in a small town, wherever it may be, that you aspire to break out and leave. Travelling America in my early twenties certainly opened my eyes and inspired me immensely but I’ve always just tried to follow my gut instincts with song writing and take the songs in whatever musical direction I feel suits them best. You can create your own musical environment via your own music collection. If you surround yourself with the music of a certain style, whatever it may be, then it will inevitably inform and influence the music that you are inclined to create. As the old saying goes, “It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at”.
 
Did you enjoy the co-writing situation that is fairly common in Nashville? How did it affect the writing?
I did enjoy the process very much. To begin with it came remarkably easy. I think it really depends who you are writing with and how you connect on a personal level. I was fortunate that I felt very comfortable and connected with the other writers (Rick Brantley and Mando Saenz) during the first couple of trips. They were just so easy going and with a little encouragement the songs just clicked into place. I had never written with another person before I went to Nashville but I approached the sessions with an open mind and an impetus to come up with something. You have to be very present and engaged for the process to work, and try to work towards creating something you can both be happy with. 

I was just amazed how quickly things can come together when you are both on the same wave length and working together towards the same goal. It wasn’t always that easy. Someone must come up with a seed of an idea first, whether it’s the music or the lyric. But you’ve got to start somewhere. Even if you later go in a different direction and abandon the original idea. Someone has the drive the idea forward and engage the other writer into knocking ideas back and forth. When it’s balanced and positive the process can be very rewarding. It’s only when ideas run thin or stall that it can become a little frustrating. But overall it was a very positive experience and one that I think really helped to develop my craft as a song writer.
 
Which is the most interesting part of the process for you the lyric writing or the music?
I don’t think I can separate the two. They are both so dependent on one another and benefit from one another. Yes, I often write reams of lyrics before I marry them with music. And I also write instrumental pieces of music before I marry it with lyrics but almost always they will both change and adapt to one another when they come together. And generally, become stronger together. 
 
That direction, through your various albums, has looked at different variations of roots music while retaining a consistent viewpoint. Has that been a fundamental attitude?
I think so. As I mentioned previously a good song can always translate into any genre and I have always just tried to follow my gut instinct regarding where I should take a song. My taste in music is very wide ranging and I really don’t wish to be restricted in any way. I naturally seem to react against the last song I’ve written, so if I write a slow melancholy song, I will almost immediately begin something fast and upbeat next. The contrast is often exhilarating and keeps things interesting. It’s very easy to get stuck in a rut and keep repeating the same process so I need to shake things up and remain inspired to try new ideas. I guess the consistent viewpoint is my voice and my outlook on life. Even when you are writing a character or story driven song which has nothing at all to do with you, it’s hard to resist injecting something of your own viewpoint or attitude in there somewhere.  
 
You recently supported Mavis Staples in Wales. How was that?
It was truly wonderful. A real dream come true. Such an honour and a privilege. 
 
I have such a deep love for Mavis. Her music and her voice have been a source of great comfort and inspiration to me for many, many years. My set itself went well and I had a great response from her audience. I played a mix of the more soul or gospel influenced songs from previous albums as well as a few from the new album. After my set, I bravely knocked on her dressing room door to say hello and she invited me in. So, there I was sitting with the one and only Mavis Staples. Just me and her for 5 or 10 minutes talking about some mutual friends and the new album that she’s just finished recording with Jeff Tweedy, whilst I tried hard not to just gush like a giddy fan. She has always been my favourite female soul singer and I absolutely adore her. She was everything I had hoped and expected her to be. She was warm and welcoming with such amazingly positive energy.

She was so gracious, sweet and kind. I’ll never forget what she said to me. She paid me the compliment of saying, "Boy you sounded great! Your voice is strong! And that was just you up there - you sounded like three people". I was so flattered. It was a moment that I will cherish for the rest of my days. 
 
And then of course Mavis' set was just amazing! Her band were phenomenal. 
She filled the room with positive vibrations, love and joy and the crowd worshiped her. The world is just a better place while you are in her company. 
 
Obviously with recent albums like Heart On Fire with the South Austin Horns reflect your interest in soul. Something that has now become something of a musical trend in the last couple of years. Did you foresee that?
Not really. I have always been a big fan of vintage soul music from the 1960’s and to me it’s utterly timeless, which might explain why it still connects with a modern audience so well. The combination of a passionate and soulful voice with a horn section and a good arrangement will always speak to people. To me it’s ‘Feel Good Music’ even when it’s singing of blues and heartbreak. It can just hit you in the gut and then tear your heart out but somehow also feel joyful and uplifting. In my case I had slowly been putting songs to one side for many years, that I felt would benefit from a soul styled arrangement, long before I decided to record ‘Heart On Fire’. A couple of them were written before my first album came out. So, when the opportunity finally presented itself to record with a horn section, I had the material ready to go. Musical trends come and go but good soul music like rock’n’roll will never really die. It’ll always have a place. I never really thought of what I was doing in terms of following any contemporary trends. I just felt that those songs in particular where calling out for that kind of instrumentation and I wanted to follow my gut instinct to try and do them justice. 
 
Are there other artists who you worked with that provided you with a memorable experience? 
Yes, quite a few. I’ve been very fortunate to work with or tour with some of my absolute musical heroes. People that I have admired. People that had an important impact or influenced me in some way through listening to their music, long before I met them. Working in the studio with Victoria Williams was certainly a memorable experience. I remember first finding out about Victoria when I was in California in 1993. I had read an article about the tribute album ‘Sweet Relief’ that was being released to raise money for her medical bills after she was diagnosed with MS (Multiple Sclerosis) while on tour with Neil Young. It featured a lot of great acts that I liked, from Lou Reed to Evan Dando, Buffalo Tom, Pearl Jam and more, covering her songs, so I had to check it out. I then bought a few of her earlier albums, and when Loose came out in 1994 I was a big fan. Twelve years or so later, I was invited by a friend in Cardiff to meet Mark Olsen from The Jayhawks as he was looking to find someone with a studio that he could use to record some demos while he was in town. 
 
To try and cut a long story short, I ended up putting a band of local musicians together for Mark to record the demos which went very well. Then a few months later Mark returned to Cardiff, this time with Victoria. I was thrilled to see her walking down my street one morning and to meet her. We recorded another batch of songs (some of which went on to be re-recorded in LA for Marks’ solo album, The Salvation Blues) and at the end of the second day of recording I had the crazy idea of turning my song ‘Bottom Dollar’ into a duet and asked Vic if she would be interested in recording some vocals for me. She was happy to oblige and I was just blown away. A year or so later Vic came back over to record with me again. I took her up to a cottage near Aberystwyth to specifically try and develop some song ideas for a new album of her own. There were lots and lots of ideas flying around that week and we captured some great stuff. On the strength of those demos she was later offered a deal with ‘Honest Jon’s Records’ but as far as I know nothing ever materialised. She is an unique and special singer and song writer. I hope that I helped in some way and that she can deliver a new album sometime in the not too distant future.

There are a few other memorable moments like the first time I opened for John Cale which was a very big deal for me at the time. Touring the UK with Kristin Hersh was huge for me too, as I was such a big fan of Throwing Muses as a teenager and her solo work was such a big inspiration to me when I first started making music. She was just so kind and supportive. I feel privileged to now call her a friend. I don’t want to come across like a name dropper but I have been fortunate enough to tour with some legendary people. I’ll never forget sitting in the dressing room talking about Townes Van Zandt with Steve Earle or talking about Johnny Cash with Billy Joe Shaver or discussing Elvis with Wanda Jackson. It’s pretty insane to think about really, when you revere those people so much, but the biggest lesson I’ve learned from meeting all of these great people is that, away from the stage spotlight, they too are just living and breathing human beings like me or you. They have exceptional talents – yes, but they face their own challenges and have to work as hard as anyone else to sustain their success and continue to produce great work.      
 
As an independent artist how has the musical landscape and the way music is now distributed changed your process?
It hasn’t really changed my process, but then I’m quite old fashioned in my approach to making and releasing music. I’ve always valued the album as a body of work above the single. I do struggle to pick individual songs for a ‘Radio Single’ or a video as I get too attached to them being part of the album. I realise that it is a necessary thing, to try and promote an album but I’m not very comfortable with the process. The digitisation of music and all the various platforms that are available to distribute music does make it easier to get your music out there online but it has also devalued the product so much that it makes it very difficult to get any financial return, as people have become so accustomed to consuming music for free. It now feels like you make an album then battle to try and give it away for free with some vague hope that people may then come and see you play live. Youtube has become such a massive platform because the visual aspect is so powerful. I am guilty of this too. If someone recommends a band or artist to me, the first thing I will do is go and check what they have on Youtube. It’s crazy really. An artist or band toils away for a year or two trying to make the best sounding record that they can and then people just go to Youtube and end up watching and listening to some low quality live recording captured on a mobile phone camera. It’s a great resource for archive recordings though and I use it a lot. I’m conscious of the fact that I need to feed that side of things more. 

As an independent artist, these days you have to cover all bases and be a great multitasker. On top of being the song writer, singer, musician, performer, producer, recording and mixing engineer, manager, booking agent, press and radio plugger, and whatever else, it seems that being a good videographer or film maker should be high on the list of priorities now too. I certainly need to work on that area of things and get more quality videos out there. 
 
In these somewhat confused and troubled times how do these events filter into your music?
I think it’s inevitable that they filter into the music. If you care at all it’s hard not to be aware, not to feel emotionally moved or reflect what is going on in the world within the things that you want to say and the music you make. I can’t really claim to have ever been an overtly political or social songwriter but I’ve written a few and I’m sure I’ll write a few more in due course. We are certainly living in very troubled times right now and it’s sad to think that so many of those protest songs from the civil rights movement in the 60’s are still as relevant today as they were then. I’m just glad that Mavis Staples is still alive and kicking and able to sing them whilst also spreading her positive message of love and inspiration. 
 
Are the opportunities to play live more difficult these days and does that mean that you have a reverse situation in that touring the US in that it is usually US artists coming to Europe rather than the other way round. Is offering some scope for you?
It seems that it has become more difficult yes. Venues and pubs are closing down all over the country, for various reasons, and there is a lot of competition for gigs. As an independent artist and your own booking agent you can’t sit back and wait to be offered gigs. You have to keep seeking them out and driving things forward, whether that is in the UK, Europe, America or anywhere else. North America has always been notoriously difficult, firstly to get the work visa to tour and secondly to make any kind of impression. Canada is somewhat more accessible and parts of Europe can be great but Brexit will most likely have a negative effect on UK touring musicians over there. There is always scope but it’s a hard slog sometimes. Some days you dig around trying to find opportunities and it feels like your banging your head against a brick wall. But then every once in a while, you might knock a chunk out of that wall and a ray of light comes shining through. And that makes it all seem worthwhile. 
 
Is the future bright or is it a struggle (the glass full or half full question)?
Oh, it’s a struggle alright, but the future is bright too. I’ve always regarded myself as something of a cynical-optimist. Prepared for disappointment but always hoping for the best. Sometimes the power of positive thinking does seem to work. It’s hard to stay optimistic sometimes and I am prone to getting stuck in a rut from time to time, but in general I feel tremendously fortunate and grateful to live the life that I live.  I have so much to be thankful for. I may not sell as many albums as I’d like, or play to as many people as I’d like, but I still live for it. And I still love writing songs, recording music and performing.
 
You still love making music, given you continue to release albums, is it a necessity for you?
Yes. It may sound cliched but the creative process really is its own reward. There is a great feeling of accomplishment when you create something out of nothing or turn a negative emotion into something positive. It’s often like taking a weight off your shoulders or getting something out of your system so that you can look at it in a more objective manner. It can be very therapeutic or cathartic.

You can grow bitter or grow better. I often console myself if an album doesn’t achieve what I might think it should, by telling myself that the next one will be better. I think it’s healthy to always aspire to improve and develop your abilities. And with music and song-writing you never stop learning. There are always areas that you can work on, and that feeds your drive to move forward, improve and hopefully make better records. Playing live is rewarding too and necessary to gauge the quality of the work you’ve created. To see the reaction to songs and find out if they sink or swim. It also feeds the ego a little, helps to boost your confidence and provide some reassurance that you aren’t completely misguided or delusional.  
 
It’s a long time since you played in Ireland. Any plans to return? 
Yes, it’s been far too long since I was last over there on tour opening for The Handsome Family in 2009. I would love to come back and play some shows, especially the Kilkenny Rhythm & Roots Festival which people keep telling me is the greatest. I really enjoyed playing at Cleere’s when I was last there. The people were amazing and I’d love to return. I need to make some serious plans to get back over there to play especially with this new album out now. Of course, it would be great if I can get on another tour with a more established act to ensure a good crowd, but I just need to get a few gigs of my own organised and get over there again. It’s such a beautiful country to tour around and always a great experience to play to such passionate music lovers. I’ll keep you posted.

Interview by Stephen Rapid
Friday
Aug182017

Kenny Foster Interview

Kenny Foster is a singer songwriter who relocated from Joplin Missouri to Nashville seeking fame and fortune.  His tale is similar to many who land in The Music City and experience the trials and tribulations of making their mark in a sometimes impossibly competitive market where industry politics often dominate. What separates Foster from many of his peers is his capacity to articulate the experience in a credible, practical and pragmatic manner. Foster released his debut album Deep Cuts earlier this year and spoke with Lonesome Highway about his career before embarking on a short tour of Ireland and The U.K.

 

You often refer to the difficulties you encountered moving to Nashville from Missouri and establishing a foothold in the competitive music industry in the Music City. Do you now consider Nashville home and intend staying put?

Nashville has become my second home. It’s a love/hate relationship sometimes, and I think you’d hear most folks in this highly competitive field say the same thing at different points. When it’s good, it’s very, very good. When it’s bad, it’s almost unbearable. But my wife and I have developed a great community of friends in and out of the creative industries, and we can find a great deal of balance here. Access to both the lives we led before making the jump to pursue a seemingly impossible dream, and access to the best, most driven, most talented creatives in the world. It really is a remarkable city.

Country Music radio stations dictate exactly what is to be currently labelled as ‘country’ music, the majority of which does not in any way reflect the roots of traditional country music. How does an artist like yourself deal with that and is it possible to stick to your core musical beliefs yet manage to survive?

I appreciate this question, and honestly I really don’t know where this whole thing will end up. But the fact that you asked me in light of what your readers want, there must be a number of country music fans that see the industry in the same way you’ve just described. That says to me that there is a desire for the kind of music that myself and my collaborators/friends are trying to make day-in and day-out. Maybe the desire for a return to the roots of traditional country music will become so great that the industry will follow suit. Maybe it won’t. But regardless, I’ve done a great amount of chasing, and striving, and fitting in before this recent record, and after a good amount of shoul searching (and exhaustion, really) it feels good to know exactly who I am as an artist. I may evolve sonically, but my messaging will all come from the same place: the very heart of me. I’ve grown weary of throwing punches or trying to prove anything to an ever-evolving landscape. Ask anyone playing in it, and they couldn’t tell you what’s gonna break next month. They just keep throwing stuff against a wall and seein’ what sticks. 

It’s more of a long-game mentality for me and my kind, and as such we have to do a great number of things to survive. But once equilibrium sets in, and you’re living a life that makes you content, then the desire for bigger, better, faster, more wanes a significant amount. If it never pans out in a monstrous way with the support of radio and the big machines, that’s okay. If it does become the next big thing, that will come with its own set of challenges and frustrations, even amidst the growth and excitement. Either way, it sounds like great fodder for some remarkable songs to me. And I imagine this is all panning out in the way it was always meant to.

Have your studies in philosophy been an advantage in dealing with expectation, anticipation and the inevitable rejection by times that goes with the territory?

[Laughs] Well it has certainly helped me analyze the depths of my despair. [chuckles] I kid. Pretty sure I already knew how to think, but philosophy taught me how to learn. I had to face ideas and opinions that were sometimes counter to my own, some even came from a completely different place than my own. The mental gymnastics certainly gave me the constitution for accepting and processing all sorts of adversity and the amalgam of different experiences I was likely to face in my pursuit of the ever-elusive ‘life of art.’ I learned how to discern good arguments from bad ones, I learned how to appropriate sound thinking to help bolster my own thoughts/beliefs, and I learned to be comfortable with having my previously held ideas be proven wrong. These are rare qualities in this tumultuous time. I’m grateful for philosophy’s role in helping me shape a more sound world view from which to create.

There is quite a market for Country and Americana in Europe with many artists from The States targeting Europe rather than trying to cover vast areas of their home country. Is this also your intention? 

I love that you assume I have any intention that goes beyond wanting to share my music with thoughtful. respectful crowds. I believe in the power of creating a moment. Whether that’s for 10 people or 10,000. Each show is different given the people, the venue, the context. Ultimately, I will go where I am wanted, and the response to Deep Cuts in the UK and Ireland has been such that I wanted to come be a part of the conversation. As a sound financial plan or a precursor to swift and complete world domination, I can safely say we’ve not thought that far ahead. I love this part of the world, and knowing that a place I already liked to spend time wanted to hear a few tunes come out of my mouth, well that just tickled me pink and so we decided to come over. Simple as that.

You’ve been invited to perform on the Bob Harris Under The Apple Tree sessions which is great exposure for you. How did that materialise?

After my Rolling Stone write up, we were approached by a company called Limetree Music out of the UK and we talked to them about our plans to tour in your neck of the woods. It’s my understanding that they passed along my music to the folks at Under the Apple Tree, and the response was such that we were invited to take part in the great legacy that they have created there. I’m very grateful for their acceptance of me into their fold, and look forward to meeting “Whispering” Bob in person very soon!

Your dates in Ireland and the UK coincide with the release of your album Deep Cuts. Have you been touring the album at home yet? 

Nope. You go to where your people are, and the response from Ireland and the UK has been so overwhelming that it made us take notice. In gearing up for a fall tour, the stars aligned for us to do a leg overseas, and as an independent, the exhaustive nature of stringing together dates became so much easier to muster. Especially to visit a place that has been so welcoming and so intentional with us historically. I look forward to it immensely. 

The album features quite a number of co-writes with some serious big hitters such as Marti Dodson and Casey Wood. Are you more comfortable co-writing and do you consider that working with others makes the process simpler or more challenging?

Co-writing is just a different thing. I think it takes a great amount of trust and mutual respect to get a great tune. I spend so much time co-writing because I’m not always writing for myself. The sheer number of songs that I’ve been pumping out (200 a year over the past 3 years) lends itself to finding comfort in letting the wind take you where it wants to go. That’s easier when you’ve got a supremely talented friend in tow. Sometimes you hit on something that can be recognized as a great song, but it’s so personal that it takes the right voice with the right conviction to pull it off. Turns out a few of those writes for other people were really writes for me to make this record. Simple? Challenging? All in a days work. Depends on the day, the song, the weather, the mood. When a song hits, it just hits. 

The song ‘Made’ on the album is particularly powerful lyrically. Is it autobiographical?

The heart and voice of that tune is absolutely, through and through, me. It’s actually the song that I built the whole rest of the record around. The person I was, in the place that I was when I wrote that song, was just ‘right.’ While I took some artistic liberties with the specifics of the scenario, it became so real to me; so visceral. I wanted to make sure that the rest of the record would fall in line with the sentiment that rocked me to the core. That’s what I wanted to capture, and I’m so glad that you felt it in a similar way.

When writing songs do you always consider that the end product will be performed by yourself or is this a factor in your writing process?

Again, it depends on the day. There are moments of inspiration that are fully and wholly me. But sometimes when you hit upon something that’s deep, and true, and almost ancient in its messaging, then it becomes universal with anyone else who is in that place. If another artist were to want to cut it, then by all means. They will give it a life that I wouldn’t be able to. There are very few songs that I write that I say ‘Nope, that one is mine.’ In my mind, a great song is a great song, and I couldn’t possibly record all of the great songs that I get to be a part of. I try to find a voice that is true. If that ends up being mine, then I’m grateful for it. I’m just here to help the thing come into existence, and grateful for the work.

The album cover is markedly striking and graphic. Did the decision to use the image require much soul searching rather than select the all too often bland headshot on the cover?

I’d had the idea for capturing the photo concept ever since I’d recorded a song called Bravery back in 2011. The lyric was ‘Nothing about me says I think I’m good enough. I know I’ve got a heart with a leak, I try to fill it up.’ Up to that point I don’t think I’d written anything so vulnerable in my life, and it turns out it was just a precursor of things to come. So when this collection of songs was being put together, this image kept coming up in my mind as verily important. The truth is, I had no idea how to marry the two: these heartfelt, authentically simple songs and this terrible, gruesome, bloody image. It wasn’t until I was at dinner with a dear friend and the producer/director of my recent music video for Stand, Kenny Jackson (anthempictures.tv), and we were talking about the project and the history, and what I was trying to do with it and he was the one that said: ‘Why don’t you just call it Deep Cuts?’ Like a fricking bolt of lightning. Of course! It was the tie that bound all of it together in this beautiful package. It catches you unaware in a shocking way that hopefully compels you to look inside and discover something equally as shocking, but maybe not what you were expecting. I LOVED it. It was game-on from that point forward. I phoned my friend Rorshak (Rorshak.com) who is quite possibly the most underrated photographer I’ve ever seen. We have commiserated over many a beer about our particular plights. [laughs] Over one of these beers, the plan was set in motion behind his epically creative vision for capturing the image, and he executed the project like nothing I’ve ever seen before.  With him behind the camera, it was never going to be a bland headshot. I love, love, love collaborating with him.

There’s a great little blog over on my website if you’re interested in seeing behind the scenes of all that. But it all turned out exactly as I’d hoped. Better even. 

Grammy award winner Mitch Dane covers and embraces every conceivable musical genre from bluegrass to hip hop. What inspired you to select him to produce the album?

Mitch is a beautiful soul. His story is remarkable. His aim is true. He got it. We have been friends for over a decade, and when I first moved to town, the idea of doing a record with him “one day” seemed so very far out of reach. We had even made plans to do an EP as long ago as 2010, but some extraneous circumstances caused that to fall through. I’m ever so glad, because 5 or 6 songs wouldn’t have been enough time to spend with him. As it worked out, I kept developing and he kept making great records. The stars aligned. Our calendars matched. We were off like a rocket. We took our time, and moved through methodically. His exact words were: “It’s going to be great. I just have to make sure I don’t mess it up.” If that doesn’t give you the confidence you need as an artist to give it your all, I’m not sure what will. He was very careful. He’s an intentional human being, and anyone would be so lucky to get the chance to allow their work to pass through his gifted hands.

There is a noticeable crossover in recent years between artists that would have previously being considered AMA suited rather than CMA. I’m thinking Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Margo Price and Kacey Musgraves who typically have appealed to both markets. Where would you place yourself in terms of your fanbase and market?

Again, while I’ve been banging around in music for quite a while, this record was really the first of my projects to receive the attention and acclaim that it has. We’re still finding our market. I obviously resonate so deeply with not only the artists you’ve just mentioned and their work, but their decision to walk a different path. I didn’t set out to make a ‘crossover’ record, so to speak. It just turns out that music lovers who don’t typically listen to country music have taken quite a liking to it. There was no master plan [laughs] I just finally made the record I wanted, in the way I wanted to make it, and I didn’t think about markets or demographics, or action items. To me this effort was about making the project. Period. Any life that this record has, I’m just along for the ride. I’m so grateful it exists in the world now, and I’m so grateful people are resonating with it. If they’re AMA, CMA, MTV, BET, or OPP I would just call fans of my music ‘friends’, no matter their walk of life.

Wearing your philosophers hat where do you expect to be career wise in ten years down the road?

My philosopher’s hat would tell me that the only true wisdom is knowing that I know nothing. I don’t make conjecture any more. I will follow my heart each and every day and let the rest work itself out. Worry not for tomorrow, for today has enough trouble of its own.

Interview by Declan Culliton

Tuesday
Aug082017

Jason Wilber Interview

The old adage of the male species not being able to multi-task most certainly does not apply to Jason Wilber. A career spanning over two decades to date has included twenty years as guitarist in the studio and on tour with John Prine, the release of eight studio albums, producer, session player, radio show host and guitar instructor. Possibly best known for his association with John Prine and also widely considered as one of the finest guitar players of his time, I’m intrigued as to how he actually manages to write so much material and actually record it given the mileage he clocks up on the road.

‘’Sometimes I will write a song while traveling, but most of the time I write at home’’ Jason Wilber tells Lonesome Highway while in the process of packing suitcases for another tour as part of John Prine’s legendary backing band alongside David Jacques, Pat Mc Laughlin and latest recruit drummer Kenneth Blevins. The tour takes in shows in Ireland, UK and The States fairly well filling in his diary until the end of 2017.

His latest album Reaction Time is Wilbur’s eight studio recording since the release of his debut album Lost In Your Hometown in 1998. It’s also one of his strongest with songs such as Something Somewhere, Heaven and the title track particularly hitting the spot. It was recorded only twelve months after Echoes, a covers album that featured material written by a variety of artists from The Rolling Stones to David Bowie and Leon Russell. Rather than self-produce Wilber engaged the services of Paul Mahern on both Echoes and Reaction Time. Mahern's musical career kicked off as a teenager with hardcore punk band The Zero Boys and he subsequently worked with household names such as Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Afghan Whigs, Magnolia Electric Co. and Iggy Pop. I wondered what drew Wilbur to him rather than take hold of the reins himself. ‘Paul is a fantastic engineer and producer. We have a good collaborative working relationship and I can count on him to be honest about whether he thinks something is good or not. He thinks of musical things that I don't think of and vice versa. Our musical backgrounds have some commonality but also a lot of differences, and I think that enriches the results we get’ explains Wilber. The album also reunites Wilber with Iris DeMent who adds backing vocals to Heaven, the closing track on the album. ‘I love Iris like a sister. I've had the pleasure of working with her for many years now. She has an amazing and unique voice and I couldn't think of any voice I'd rather hear first in the hereafter’.

With a career balance that involves so many different strands I wondered which of the roles brought the most satisfaction. ‘I enjoy accompanying other artists. It’s fun to be part of the team and to help paint the picture the artist is creating. On the other hand, it's nice to be the one primarily creating the picture too. So, it's kind of a tossup between performing my own songs and accompanying other artists on their songs. If I were forced to choose one though, I'd choose playing my own songs’

A self-confessed guitar fanatic from an early age his career did not follow any premeditated path, simply flowing from one stage to another as if predetermined. ‘Records by Johnny Cash, Tom T. Hall, Marty Robbins, and other artists were what set me off in that direction. Once I started playing guitar and doing gigs with bands, I realized it kind of came easy to me. Or maybe it was because I enjoyed it so much, all the hours of practicing didn't feel like work to me. Right away I was making more money playing in bands on the weekends than any of my friends who had part time jobs. I just progressed from there and at some point I started concentrating more on writing my own songs’

Without doubt the turning point in his career was his association with John Prine who Wilber actually performed with unofficially long before teaming up with him.  ‘I first met John when I was in high school. He sat in with a band some friends of mine had and I sat in on guitar. We played a whole set of John's songs at a little bar in the little college town where I still live. But we didn't stay in touch after that. About 10 years later, some friends of mine were playing in John's band and they recommended me when he needed a guitar player. I auditioned and got the job’

Remarkably that association has now lasted for twenty years without any hiccups. ‘As far as sticking together, first of all John is pretty easy going and fun to work with. He doesn't get too stressed about anything and he doesn't put a lot of rules or constraints on his musicians. Secondly, the songs are fantastic works of art. So, it's a pleasure to perform John's music with him. Thirdly, John's fans are wonderful. The people who like John's music are very loyal and keep coming back to see us play year after year. That can't be overlooked when you think about what allows you to go out and tour continually for so many years. You have to have an audience or there are no shows. Sounds obvious, but sometimes that part gets overlooked. I'd say those are three of the keys to us all being able to do it for so long’

Prine’s shows in Ireland have been and continue to be exceptional, I’d go as far as saying they have even improved in the past decade if that’s possible! There is a notable chemistry on stage between Wilber, Pat Mc Loughlin and Dave Jacques that appears effortless and manages to maintain that enthusiasm and passion show after show which Wilber casually dismisses. ‘We all enjoy playing together and just hanging out. So combine that with great songs and enthusiastic audiences, and it's pretty easy to stay engaged’

Accompanying Prine on duet recordings over the years gave him the opportunity to work with the cream of the industry’s female vocalists. I probed if there was any one artist that particularly impressed you above the rest. ‘Well pretty much all of John's duet partners have been incredible artists in their own rite, so they were all impressive in that respect. I can think of a few things that standout in my mind. One is Iris's voice, which is just so gigantic and unique. It's one thing to hear her on a record, but when you're standing in the same room with her, it's quite striking. Another would be Miranda Lambert, who pretty much sang everything perfectly, every time. Tone, pitch, phrasing, just spot on every time. That's pretty rare. One last one that comes to mind is Lee Ann Womack's voice. She has such a pure and beautiful voice and her southern accent is really ideal for country music.’

 The lack of industry support that many artists are exposed to these days often results in meagre pickings making survival as a professional artist more perilous than ever. Wilber’s laid back and relaxed persona is in contradiction to an artist that appears to have nailed down the survival formula better than most. ‘Ha-ha. I guess it depends on your definition of “survive”. I think you just have to find your own way to solve that puzzle. There are lots of different ways to do it, and plenty of artists out there are making a living. So clearly it can be done. It's not easy, but if it was easy everyone would be doing it’ 

The standard of artists currently residing and recording in Nashville is staggering. Many of these artists have been onstage with Wilber while on tour with John Prine. Margo Price, Sturgill Simpson, John Mooreland, Dan Auerbach, Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell particularly come to mind. Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price have made somewhat unlikely industry breakthroughs in recent years despite the mounting hurdles.  Has the door finally been opened for Americana type artists to reach much wider audiences I enquired. ‘Maybe, that would be nice. I started listening to Joe Ely back in the early '80's and he'd been making records since the '70's. There were lots of other artists I started listening to back in the '80's like Los Lobos, Lone Justice, The Plimsoles, to name a few. This is before Americana was a genre, it was called roots rock back then, or some artists were called cow punk. I couldn't understand why those artists weren't as popular as the Top 40 acts on the radio. Fast forward 30 years and it hasn't changed a whole bunch. It's better now, in the sense that there are alternative outlets for Americana artists to be heard. And you can find almost anything on the internet. But the main stream music is still something else. So to use your analogy; there is a door open, but it's not front door’

Wilber will be playing a full programme of dates on the upcoming tour of Ireland, some with John Prine and also solo gigs at venues from one end of the country to the other. From spraying note perfect guitar licks in sold out theatres as a band member to performing solo with a smaller audience unassisted. I could not resist questioning which of the two roles is more demanding. ‘Ha-ha. That's kind of a loaded question. In this case, neither one is pressurized. Pressure mainly is a result of being unprepared for the situation, and/or working with people who are difficult. Fortunately, I am well prepared and working with fun people, so all the gigs should be a blast. I'm looking forward to it!’

Interview by Declan Culliton

Wednesday
Jun282017

Courtney Marie Andrews Interview

"When I was a teenager I got wrapped up into some very shady business deals, and felt I was taken advantage of as a young woman by a label’’ explains Courtney Marie Andrews while considering how her sixth album Honest Life has finally propelled the native of Phoenix Arizona to the business end of the music industry.  The album, released earlier this year in the UK, (2016 in The States) is already being hailed as an album of the year in many quarters and rightly so given the quality of the material and song writing. It positively overflows with hurt, emotion, rejection and isolation as Andrews simply pours her heart out, reliving her life experiences of the last decade. It’s a body of work that recalls Joni Mitchell’s Blue in many ways, but more of that later.

The encounters packed into her early career and the endless touring as a young artist involved heartbreak, isolation, relationship breakups and a lot of homesickness. It is difficult to highlight any particular tracks on Honest Life given the overall excellence throughout but Not The End and How Quickly Your Heart Mends are simply classic love lost songs and Table For One is the most candid and honest portrayal imaginable of life on the road as a solo artist.

Its impact has given Andrews considerable media exposure, particularly in Europe, including a recent appearance on Later with Jools.  At the end of 2016 American Songwriter voted How Quickly Your Heart Mends as their No.4 song of the year.

''Honest Life definitely came from personal place. They sometimes twist the truth, but the original thoughts are very close to my heart. Personal experience is inevitable, so it’s important to be observant and empathetic enough to be able to connect the dots to your writing’’ she confesses. The album was self-produced by Andrews at Litho Studios in Seattle with the assistance of engineer Floyd Reitsma. "My trust in the industry was scarred for several years, and I was convinced that I had to do it on my own. The first few times I attempted to record Honest Life, I mostly had a bunch of older men telling me how I should sound, so that it will "sell." That really hurt me, and at the end of the day I wanted to do it my way, with my friends. My vision was clear for the album so it was easier to take the producer seat''

How long was the album in the making and was the intention to achieve a late 60’s breezy sound to the album or did that simply develop in the studio I wondered. "It probably has that sound because a lot of the album was recorded very much live, with little to no modern production tricks. I was focused more on the band getting a great take, then I was fixing it in mixing. A lot of these songs dropped into my lap fully formed. It’s so nice when that happens. I wrote them over a course of a few months. I wrote three of the songs in one day, Honest Life, Put the Fire Out and Rookie Dreaming. Regret and yearning feature quite strongly in a number of the songs."

Speaking like an industry veteran it’s difficult to fathom that she is only 26 years of age. Her early career reads like the ideal text book apprenticeship for any musician. While still in her early teenage years she was writing songs, touring as a busker at the age of sixteen and soon progressing to recording, performing and also working as a touring band member.  The tours included back up vocalist with Arizona rock band Jimmy Eat World and playing guitar as part of Damien Jurado’s touring band, an experience that seemed to be immensely influential on her solo career.

"I met Damien while living in Seattle. I opened up a few shows of his around town, then also opened one of his European tours. We hit it off, and he was fun and easy to tour with. When his next record cycle rolled around he asked me to be a part of the band. I was elated! He’s really fun to play for because he allows for so much creativity within the frame of a performance." Listening to her debut album No One’s Slate Is Clean, recorded when she was barely out of her teens, it seems unthinkable that it did not expose her to a wide audience back then. Asked how she considers that album today even though it’s quite similar in style and quality to her latest album you are left in no doubt that she has moved on career wise and is not in the habit of glancing over her shoulder. "Once I’m finished with a record, I usually put it away. I don’t think I’ve listened to No One’s Slate in over 3 or 4 years. It’s sort of like reading old diary entries. You usually are very critical of your past self, and that goes for music as well."

On her success in making a considerable mark in Europe she enthuses "Europe is definitely more immediately receptive to good music. Since there is so much ground to cover in The States, you sort of have to beat listeners over the head with it. Someone needs to shout at them, "HEY THIS IS GOOD, LISTEN."

Scheduled to play four dates in Ireland later in the year in Dublin, Belfast and two appearances at The Harvest Country Music Festival in Sligo and Enniskillen I was more than surprised to see her named among the artists performing at Harvest and her quite often being hailed as the next country music starlet given that her music is unlike the vast majority of artists listed to play that festival. So how does the country music tag sit with her. "I love country music, but I never was shooting for that label. It’s easy for listeners to use that as a way of describing music, so I get it. It’s just, I’ve always been much more influenced by songwriters who explore a wide range of songs, sonic influences, and structures. I’m not sure people will label me country after they hear the albums that are to come. It’s more fun to be a songwriter who writes all types of songs, ‘cause then you can do whatever the hell you want."

Andrews is already at the early stages of her next album which she expects will be somewhat of a departure sonically but hopefully with songs equally as strong as those on Honest Life.  Thanking her for taking the time to talk and noting how much we are looking forward to her Dublin gig it’s difficult not to ask her if a similar young songwriter in the 60’s named Joni Mitchell was a primary influence. "Of course, I love Joni. Every budding songwriter should study up on Joni. She’s up there in the “Tower of Song,” as Cohen wrote of Hank (Williams Sr).’’

Interview by Declan Culliton    Photograph by Susy Sundborg.