Thursday
Apr302015

 

If like me you are a recent recruit to April’s Army then you’re probably familiar with Miss Verch’s career to date but a first time visitor can be prepared for an acoustic musical experience quite a bit different from their previous expeditions into the Trad/Old Timey/Roots Americana world. April Verch and her two on stage pals are here to listen, assess audience reaction and deliver an evening that sort of defies categorization. If you want a pre taster then go no further than the first track, Belle Election from her most recent CD The Newpart a 14 track tour through as many musical styles as I can count on both hands. Belle Election is an audio nutshell of the performance to be savoured from these three fine musicians. With stunning fiddle, exquisite flatpicking, solid base and an jntro to April’s intricate dancing that will have you on your feet and joining in from the first few taps,

I’ve been a fan since I searched April on the web a few years back following the release of That’s How We Run a mind-blowing album featuring the traditional music of the US rather than her usual fare from her native Canada. It featured an A-List  of players too numerous to name here but a mention of Bobby Hicks and my heroes Riley Bauguss and Dirk Powell should help to set the bar for your listening pleasure.  She followed this in 2013 with another blockbuster, Bright Like Gold a twenty track beauty and I’ll just say that having Sammy Shelor, Mac Wiseman and Bruce Molsky on board may have been responsible for me almost wearing a hole in the CD from constant replaying in my car.

Her latest release The Newpart will I’m sure form a goodly part of her concert material and is a tribute to her family history and that room back home that nurtured her love of all things musical and gave us the consummate musician that is today’s April Verch. She is without doubt one of the world’s best traditional fiddlers , a singer of such style that would have many of the “Chantoosies” of many a gin joint green with envy and a step dancer who can tap, clog and perform leaping twirls that put me and my camera to the pin of our collars just trying to keep up.

My first live encounter with April was at last years Ulster American Bluegrass Festival in Omagh, Co. Tyrone, where she and her band entertained us over three days delivering different sets each time, winning new fans with each performance and the thing that fascinated me most was to see her join in as many off stage jam sessions as she could squeeze in. I recently asked her for her thoughts on jumping into jams and her answer took me a little by surprise. She loves to jam and will always leave having learned a new tune or song but she would never presume to upstage the jammers, preferring instead to just join in at her comfort level, admitting that Bluegrass is not her strongest genre, and enjoy the learning experience.

Her dedication to improving her musical skills is summed up in this story, how years ago at a local fiddler’s monthly dance in her native Ottawa Valley, this young prodigy much loved and encouraged by the older players, noticed that when she played a waltz the dancers didn’t fill the floor even though she felt she had the correct tone and technique. Her Dad persuaded her to listen to how the older and sometimes scratchy fiddlers’ playing got the folks up dancing. That lesson lives with her today and honed her ear to the timings and traditions that move the dancing soul.

April was born, resides in and returns regularly to her family home in Pembroke Ontario in her beloved Ottawa Valley. Her Mom and Dad still live in the old family schoolhouse with the Newpart extension now celebrated in her most recent CD. This is her cocoon where she recharges her batteries after her many trips abroad, topping up on the people and culture, so much a part of her young life and which she feels compares very favourably with the culture of this green and mystic isle.

Her earliest musical experiences were listening to her Dad’s Country band playing at the local dance halls. Her parents were and still are huge music fans. So much so that she grew up thinking that every kid must have had the same love for music that she had right from the cradle. She was nurtured by the local musicians who recognizing the future that lay ahead of this cute but talented  child prodigy, schooled her in all aspects of her obvious career. They especially trained her in the business side of a touring musician’ life to avoid the pitfalls that might take the gloss off a shining stage career.

When I asked if she hated being dragged to music lessons she hesitated slightly but honestly replied that her dancing lessons came first, in group sessions which she loved. She started fiddle lessons at about 9 years old and flourished in her old timey styling but some interested observers suggested to her Dad that she was in danger of developing some bad habits and playing techniques which might be impossible to correct later. So classical lessons soon followed that although she later appreciated them, took her attention away from her preferred old time fiddle tunes. So like all youngsters she persevered and those classical lessons laid the foundation for the impeccable fiddle playing which has lifted her to the pinnacle of her profession.

I was very curious as to which came first the fiddle or the dancing shoes and with a grin she referred to some old family photos that prove she was dancing before she could even walk. So she strapped on her dancing shoes to follow in awe in the footsteps of her older sister Tawnya, picking up her fiddle along the way and the rest as they say is history..

April constantly refers to the Ottawa Valley style, a culture which like many other Canadian styles is historically driven by the settlers in any region. The Ottawa Valley drew many settlers to the lumber camps from Ireland, Scotland, France, Germany and Poland. And it is that distillation like a fine blended whiskey, of all these cultures that gives rise to those hard driving rhythms with a particular emphasis on dance music.  She proudly announced that the first music at a local wedding is when all the assembled guests gather for an Old Timey dance. How beautiful that must be to experience.

April will be travelling with two amazing musicians and since this is an equal opportunity band you can expect full participation from all involved. Cody Walters from Kansas has been with her since 2007 and lays down a solid backbone bass but with base or his clawhammer banjo he is never too shy to step out front and entertain. Hayes Griffin joined the band three years ago and his flatpicking guitar style much influenced by his hero Tony Rice, has to be up there with the best I’ve ever heard. These guys are a serious group of dedicated musicians who constantly seek to push the envelope on their many styles by searching, listening and working together while on and off the road to bring the best they possibly can to each new audience.

Every artist has musical heroes and April is no different. When quizzed on who would she most like to play with she had no hesitation in lamenting the fact that although she had met him a few times she never did get to play with the great John Hartford, a musicians musician who is close to the heart of all of us who love the sound of an old time fiddle or banjo. There is also a whole list of local musicians that she still has to tick off her must play with bucket list.  This led to an obvious question from me as to which of her recorded projects still gives her goosebumps. Modesty again took over and she admitted to seldom listening to her previous recordings but the project that her Dad recorded and the recent albums with Sam Bush, Mac Wiseman, Riley Bauguss and Dirk Powell hold a very special place in her heart.

Finally digging into her chill out time I discovered that she has stashed away a copy of Pink’s Greatest Hits that gets headphone time and an opportunity to bop away in private hoping that nobody gets to see.

As an aging folkie from the 60’s I have had the chance to enjoy many live performances through the years but this little lady and her two partners on stage  offer a visual and musical treat that I will value for many years to come.

Text and photography by Ronnie Norton

Monday
Apr132015

Interview with Krista Detor

 

Krista Detor works closely with her partner and producer, David Weber. She released five albums Mudshow, The Silver Wood, Cover Their Eyes, Chocolate Paper Suites and Flat Earth Diary since 2006. An acclaimed singer songwriter she was the only American woman invited to The BBC’s Darwin Songhouse Project. She is a seeker of inspiration wherever and whenever she can find it. She recently spoke to Lonesome Highway.

Your debut release is 2003’s A Dream in a Cornfield. The cover photo is a little girl with angel wings standing in a clearing; is that you dreaming of the future?

I had struggled so long with not having the courage to push forward with the songs I had written, so the idea of having a solo album had been taken off the table. I had a daughter and was trying to raise her when I met with David Weber and the possibility of recording my songs started to become a reality. It felt like a dream come true

David produced it with you and you gave him the following tribute; “He gave the whole thing wings with his talent, brilliance & faith; and who called me back after a year.” Can you elaborate?

I had been playing with some musicians in a rock band and we recorded a session at David’s studio. I thought if I was ever going to be taken seriously with my music, I could not be affiliated with this rock band approach. We were a rag-tag bunch called the Wolfpack and David wanted to know where I had met these guys. We ended up playing some of my songs and he suggested we do a recording. Some months passed and he called to say that he had not forgotten our conversation. I told him that I was still writing songs and we eventually said ‘ok, let’s do this’. 

It seems to have been a meeting whose time had arrived. Sometimes people come into our lives for good reason. Your words have always displayed an independence of thought and a very literate quality. Do words and song concepts come easily to you or is it something that reveals itself from playing and writing melody?

I think that sometimes a song can come by way of a melody, The World Is Water for example, but for the most part, I’ll have a song idea and a notion in my head. Usually the song and the lyric come in at the same time but the fleshing out is the musical part.

You released Mudshow in 2006 with David Weber producing again. It is essentially a different group of studio musicians with David engineering and playing a greater role as both player and co-songwriter. We are given striking imagery of elephants and of you walking a tightrope across a city skyline, with strong circus imagery and a theatrical feel to absorb. Was this a metaphor for the world as you saw it?

I think it was the way that I see the world. At that time both David and I had become personally involved and his background is actually the circus. We were in the midst of a political circus with the reaction of America to September 11th, where both bad judgement and lack of foresight had occurred. 

The elephants for me represented power and control and the feeling of being squashed by a domineering political party. Beyond that, I have a strong connection with the notion of the elephant, hunted almost to extinction for their tusks, and their sensitive nature. I have been involved in wildlife trusts for the protection of the elephant. So there was a duality.

You now find your music distributed across Europe by the record label CoraZong. This extends your musical reach and you are in the media to a much greater extent. What impact does this have on your life?

It changed pretty much overnight with a high level of press, radio and TV commitments. I was not experienced in touring and had a steep learning curve. Carrie Newcomer in the USA had taken me out on the road previously and I had learned some of the ropes, but to suddenly be in Europe and spending seven weeks on the road was a big change for me and who I was; essentially a songwriter. 

People expected that I had all this road experience because I was not a teenager, but this was not the case. At the time music was a ball & chain around my ankle that would not leave me alone. I saw myself as someone who just needed to put a down-payment on a house and trying to find a way to be ok with that. 

I had suffered from stage fright in my early 20’s and to be a touring song-writer was not something on the cards. David had faith in me however and through his support and trust I found a way to overcome it without resorting to Beta blockers. David deserves great credit for his belief and he is the reason why I overcame this.

In 2007 came the release of Cover Their Eyes which arrived with more arresting art work and elephant imagery, Kurt Vonnegut quotations about the need for kindness and a very fertile creative period for you.

After the incredible critical reaction to Mudshow, which was not very radio friendly and had a more ambient feel with both dark and pensive moods, Cover Their Eyes was then given the boundaries of trying to be more radio friendly. That can cut into the heart of what you are trying to do and I didn’t feel that it was my most authentic work as a result, even though some very good songs did come out of it. 

Listening to it, there appears to be a sad acceptance of the fragility of life and the impermanence of things with a certain melancholy present.

It was there. Between David and I, we had three small children and had come from being one thing to another; the confines of a small recording studio to being everywhere, all the time.

You are always having to redefine yourself and think about touring and how time flies on the road. As a touring musician, you are never where you currently are, but always about one year ahead, in order to remain working down the road.

We wanted to explore the dream we both had and people should never have to give up on those dreams. Part of being a good parent is showing your children what can be accomplished in life, but we had to negotiate this. 

In 2009, you were in Shrewsbury for the Darwin Song Project; eight musicians, seventeen songs and an album and live performance completed and delivered in a week. Was this collaborative experience one of liberation? Did it lead you to write or arrange in a different way?

The amount of true writing collaboration was not that much. The musicians did collaborate but the writers worked under extreme deadlines and this was liberating to me as it changed how I viewed myself a songwriter. I work well under deadline and I tend to be pretty creative.

I have a friend who rates Clock of the World as the best song he has ever heard and it moves him to tears every time he plays it. How does it feel to hear such stories and to realise the musical imprint you make?

I have heard that from a number of people and I am very moved when I hear such comments. It was really important to write that song and sculpt it out of the clay; to carve and polish it. I only ever wanted to be the best possible writer I could be; a writer’s writer. This is what I equate to success.

You released Chocolate Paper Suites in 2010, a song suite in five parts. With the same distribution through CoraZong in Europe, David at the controls, more stunning artwork and you, as an artist at the very top of your game.

That was my response to Cover Their Eyes and the direction that the record label had wanted me to take. It was a very personal work and has a beautiful, stark, vibrant imagery and is dedicated to Madeline Krause ‘as she drifts like wishes in the orange blossom air’. She was an autistic child who committed suicide and she was the daughter of close friends. 

International travel took over for a few years as you lived some of the imagery of your words with a “great big boat and a steamer trunk”. This included trips to India, Nyaka Aids School, Wildlife Reserves and some acting and some writing (The Art of Science & Sustainability). A sabbatical of sorts & a chance to gain perspective and renewal?

I took time off to spend more time with my children and to become involved with musical collaboration in theatre and university projects. My career had reached a point where I was being allocated a slot in the folk genre of recording artists and I wanted to take a break from where I had arrived.

In 2013 came Flat Earth Diary with new songs, new markets and different challenges. This appears to be a more personal release with the songs reflecting a look back in the rear view mirror.

Yes, the songs were from a more personal perspective and songs like Marietta, Just Because and Hear That reflect old memories that I have. This release came together as the result of a boat trip where there was nothing to contemplate but the horizon, no land in sight and no distractions. 

A number of the songs came out of that experience and also, the thought that in the past the world was considered to be flat by all the great minds of the time. It seemed appropriate to revisit our preconceptions and the way that we look at things. 

I have always admired the song-writing craft of Krista Detor and her ability to perform at an intimate level with an audience. Words like mature, wistful, literate, elegant, reflective, refined, poignant and whimsical come to mind, bound together by a very theatrical element that runs through her songs.

I return to that first recording and a credit to her children, Aurora, Lena & Isla – ‘for all the wide-eyed wonder.’ This seems to capture the essence of Krista Detor, and this feeling has not diminished over time. We have been given the gift of a talented woman at play with the world and long may she run. 

Interview by Paul McGee
Monday
Mar232015

Interview with James House

 

Lonesome Highway met James House in Belfast, here for a songwriter’s festival before a UK tour. House looks pretty much as he did when we last spoke at his home in Nashville in 2002. He is touring behind his new album Songwriter’s Serenade, his most recent since Broken Glass, Twisted Steel was released in 2014. Previous to that he released an album, Troubadour Kings, which he had recorded with fellow contemporary songwriter/singer John Brannen. House did some live dates with a band of that name but Brannen was not involved. 

In 1989 House released his Tony Brown produced self-titled debut. That was followed a year later by Hard Times for an Honest Man, his last release on MCA. James moved to Epic to release his acclaimed Days Gone By album in 1995. This was produced by Don Cook and sold close to 200,000 copies. It made the top 5 in the country album charts and delivered James’ one Top Ten hit This Is Me Missing You, a song that recently made number one in the line-dancing charts some 20 years after its original glory. That feat in itself was something that brought House back to the UK.

Since then House continues to write and co-write songs, six of which appeared on Steve Azar’s Slide on over Here released in 2009. Another song, Born to Be Blue, co-written with Raul Malo, was included on the Mavericks In Time album. James also wrote In a Week or Two, a hit for Diamond Rio and Ain’t That Lonely Yet with Kostas, covered by Dwight Yoakam. Both tracks appear on his last album, where House did his versions of many of his co-written songs that had been picked up by other artists. These songs were responsible for James getting his deal at Sony and Days Gone By, an album he still considers his finest. His modus operandi was, and still is, that he is always writing for his next album. That is his goal.

The writing partnerships and those currently writing hits have a different sensibility, something that House thinks is because “they are reflecting what they are listening to. They’re putting rap in their iPhones and mix it with country. Kid Rock was doing it.” He feels a big factor is the way that radio has changed. “In 1996 they changed the law in the United States. Before that you could only own two country stations and the FCC changed that to allow as many stations as you wanted. At that time there were 2500 radio stations and 80% were Mom and Pop owned so you were able to break a record regionally. That was a great tool for breaking records, even in rock, people like Bob Seeger. Texas is about the only place that (still) has a local scene. They’re very protective of it and that’s why they’ve kept it. But that really changed the scene so that we were all singing for one station, so four or five guys has the control. Which is why a lot of stuff sounds the same, as it’s being dictated by four or five companies and it all sounds the same. They’re not in the music business they’re there to sell advertising”.

That situation meant a change in the direction of songwriting and James feels that he doesn’t know how to do that kind of formulaic writing. “I don’t know how to do that, I’m still chasing that elusive great song.” During the time between his 90’s album and the current two releases James recorded an album with John Brannen. “I always wanted to make a duet record as I love that sound.” Before that he spent time with a company called Friday Records. “They came into town with some money and I cut a Christmas record and a full album with them but they folded and that had taken about three or four years for that all to happen”.

After that opportunity passed, James felt that he needed to do something different so he invested in a recording studio which he set up at his house. He then spent around three years learning the recording and engineering process. It is where he has cut the bulk of his two recent albums. “I sent Brent (Mason) the tracks and he can add his parts in his home studio”. This is a process that is now common, with parts being added to tracks sent via the internet in different studios, although House can and did cut some tracks with the musicians at home in Dream On Studios.  

Of the new freedom this label-free situation he said “it’s good and it’s bad. The good part is that I control it completely and the bad is that I control it completely (laughs)”. This means that he has to step back and consider what he has which means at times something was great or then not so good. “I play the songs for my wife and she is just brutal with me. She would say ‘that sucks’ or ‘that has potential’ or ‘that’s good’. That honest opinion is a positive asset in assessing what he was doing.

Lonesome Highway’s last conversation with James was when he was playing a series of dates in The Wildhorse Saloon. But after that he took a step back from music to look aft his son Jordan, who he had gained custody of in 2003. House is proud of the fact that his son is now going for his master’s degree in psychology. About four years ago James got back to music. Alone in the studio he could turn up the music and just concentrate on his next step, including a number of co-writing sessions in his house. 

Those co-writes included Mike Reid, Bill Anderson and Jamey Johnson. “It was a house full of music and it was really fun”. Johnson he had met at a function at the famous Studio A. The studio is owned by Ben Folds, who is managed by House’s’ wife Sharon. House and Johnson spoke about all the music that had emerged from that room, the many countrypolitan sounds with orchestration that had come from the studio. That particular conversation then led to them write their own countrypolitan song.

Another co-writer was Jim Lauderdale “I have this great image of Jim. He was coming out of the writing room and he has my son’s shoes on, kinda baby shoes, and somehow he’s walking in them and I took a picture (laughs)”. The new song he felt was a great combination of their two styles. Again they had met at a listening party for a Billy Bob Thornton album. “Billy Bob had that thing were he’d repeat a line three times, which I love but often forget about, so I had this title before Jim arrived and I wanted to use that. He stood at the kitchen table and worked on the lyrics while I walked around the house working on it. It was great to write with him”. They performed the song together later on Music City Roots.

Natalie Noone, the daughter of 60s pop star Peter Noone, is another guest whom he co-wrote with and she duets on Over Getting over You. “She’s a friend of Danny Flowers’ and he invited her to the Bluebird a couple of times. Then I saw a showcase that she did and I was knocked out. She has more of a California country sound than anything. She obviously listens to great vintage music. I heard she wanted to write so I invited her over and I had that title hanging around for awhile so we wrote it together. Peter was at the showcase so I’ve gotten to know him a little too. The thing is, back in the 60s we all heard the Beatles but the next thing we heard was Herman’s Hermits. In fact, my girlfriend at the time was Debbie Brown, so Mrs Brown you’ve Got a Lovely Daughter was special. Plus as a writer I always remember their lyric ‘Second verse same as the first’ from their hit Henry VIII - a genius whoever came up with that”. When he returns to Nashville they are going to do more writing for her upcoming album.

Veteran writer Bill Anderson is another co-writer with House for this album. Anderson continues to write, often with much younger artists and House feels that Anderson “Has got his chops as good as they ever were. He still has a ‘Bill Anderson’ song, he showed me something new he was working on. I gave him an idea ands he immediately took it and worked with it. That’s how he stays young and fresh. He’s just written with a new guy called Mo Pitney, you’ll hear a lot more of him soon, Bill’s got his new single. Bill knows how to structure a song, he knows what’s needed. That’s why he’s as good as he is and writing with him confirmed that”.

House feels that things have changed, so it is a challenge to get your music out there. Getting a cut on a TV show or film can help with exposure. But writing is the essential ingredient.  “I always got my cuts when I was writing for my next record so I have to move forward with that”. However, he has found an audience in the UK, specifically after This is Me Missing You went to the top spot in the UK dance chart after being chosen by line dance choreographer Yvonne Anderson. That helped get him back into focus again. He is also shortly going out on a tour in the US with John Berry and Deborah Allen, using one band and one bus. But he wants to establish a strong link in the UK and hopefully Ireland.  “I want to keep coming back as it works for me”.

House has also been writing with Joe Bonamassa and says he has had a lot of fun doing that and will see him play in London during this current tour. He also feels that a lot of today’s artist grew up with a heavier rock influence than may be true in the past and the influence of rock can’t be discounted. “A lot of it is 70s rock. To me there was the Eagles. I grew up around the music played at home. They loved Buck, Merle, Eddie Arnold, Ray Charles - all those records. They were part of my DNA”. Not that that source was always foremost in his musical memory as he reminisces. “I tell story that when George and Tammy were at the Opry on the last night of the duet tour in the 90s, they invited me up to do Will the Circle be Unbroken and they’re all taking verses. Johnny Russell was there too and George looks over at me I’m ‘Go away I don’t know the verses’. I’m just singing the choruses. I didn’t go to church (laughs). Then the next time he comes over and says ‘It’s your turn son’. So I have to mumble something that kind of sound like a verse” 

Of the current crop of song writers and singers he feels that a lot of what he hears (and he doesn’t listen too often to the radio) sounds more to his ears like a jingle rather than a song but he understands that times change as did the demands of radio. He does feel that his generation had a different approach; “We’re lucky as we’ve seen the evolution of music, of rock ’n’ roll” He observed that while teaching a class recently with young art students in Florida, “kids from all over the country, 15, 16, they had good structure to the songs they were writing. But in these songs I heard such melodies as Let It Be and a whole lot more and it stuck me that, unless we evolve to a whole other place as human beings, where can music go? Someone’s going to be original and someone has a good voice but, in the end, the structure of music is there now. There is no forward movement at the moment, a band like the Beatles were always looking forward”. He reckons that writing formats are pretty much set to a template right now. Although the vagaries of life and of love lost in particular were grist to a writer’s mill, House feels that as people get older they tend to look for something different. “When you’re young relationship are more raw and new to you. Everybody goes through that. The first time your heart has been broken and you get older you might not be readily willing to pay that price to write that song again. I know that Hank Cochran fell in and out of love purposely to write songs”.

Writing songs is at the very heart of what James House does, his latest two albums reaffirm his talent in that area. He is also a distinctive singer with a recognisable voice. He has a great foundation to build on and so far has survived the ups and downs of a fickle industry. His day are not, as yet, gone by.

Interview by Stephen Rapid with Ronnie Norton.  Edited by Sandy Harsch.

Monday
Feb092015

Interview with Ryan Bingham

Ryan Bingham is one of those artists who, because they tour in Europe on a frequent basis, has been regularly featured in Lonesome Highway. Ryan was touring his new album in a solo capacity so we took the opportunity to catch up with him and ask a number of questions prior to his Whelan’s performance on 31st January 2015.

Your new release, Fear and Saturday Night, has been well received. Are you happy with the media reaction to date?

Yea I am. You never really know what is going to happen when you put a record out. It’s always great to see that when you put a lot of work into something and you release it, that people are enjoying the music. That’s really the only reason why I tour and play so people come out to hear the songs. I really appreciate it.

On this album you secluded yourself away to write the songs. Was that an unusual way for you to work or did you feel the specific need to be alone with your thoughts?

I usually always need to be alone when I am writing songs and try to find some place where there are not a lot of distractions; no phones ringing and things like that. This time my wife found a guy in California who was living in the hills and had this old airstream trailer from the 50’s that he had refurbished, so he could rent it out to people for holidays and things. I went up there for a couple of days just to check it out and  it was an amazing place to hide out and just write songs, so I ended up going there for a few weeks at a time. I pretty much wrote the whole record up there. 

You start your writing process with the music rather than a lyrical idea?

It’s pretty much always the music first, playing around with a melody or a chord progression. It always seems that the music evokes the emotion. Speaking random words out almost spontaneously then brings the lyrics into play  

You made several changes this time out, working with producer Jim Scott and a set of new players. How much did that change the musical landscape?

Quite a bit. I just feel like I had a better idea of what I wanted to do on this record with sounds and other things. I really took a lot more time in just writing the songs and then I took ‘em back home and started recording demo versions that I would overdub with electric guitars and things. I was just trying to get the songs as close to how I heard them in my head before I sent them to the guys in the band and to Jim. These days we don’t have as big a budget as you do with the big record labels so we don’t have much money to really spend on a lot of time in the studio. So I was trying to get everything prepared before we went into the studio with everybody on the same page and having the same direction.

Five major releases in 8 years is very prolific by any standards. When you look back to 2007 and the Mescalito release on Lost Highway Records, how do you think your song-writing has evolved?

I hope it’s gotten better and matured a bit. I definitely feel like I have learned a lot with each record and with each song. The way I have written songs, they can tend to be pretty personal and autobiographical, just chapters of my life as I’ve grown older. Learning how to write and how to sing, how to perform, play the guitar and just get better. I think that is the biggest thing, that you try to get better every time.

Do you ever revisit the early songs from your two self-releases Wishbone Saloon and Dead Horses?

Yes, a lot of the songs on Dead Horses ended up becoming the songs on the Mescalito album but I definitely revisit a lot of those songs. A few of them are captured in their time and I can see that I was definitely 18 when I wrote some of them. Just seeing in the past 10 years how your horizons and perspective broaden from getting out in the world and thinking about the world differently. In those early days when I was writing songs I had hardly been outside of Texas or New Mexico, so my landscape for material that I could write about was pretty regional and just what I could see and what I was around. Then the more I could travel and see things, that was what I went home and wrote about; those adventures on the road.

Growing up in Texas gave you exposure to Mariachi music and playing the bar circuit honed your impressive guitar skills. How much is your creative muse influenced by those days?

Very much I have to say. Every time I start writing a handful of songs I always go back to that place from where it all started and then skip through the years up till the present time. I always seem to go back to those places, even visualising a lot of the images and those memories, some of those desolate landscapes. Those early memories still play an important role in writing for me.

The song Weary Kind featured in the movie Crazy Heart won a Grammy Award and a flurry of media attention and exposure. As a pivotal moment in your career, has that placed unwanted expectations on your shoulders?

It did, because for me, I think if I had recorded that song and just put it on a regular album without it being attached to that film then probably nobody would have gave it much attention. Just to the fact that it had so much attached to it with the film and with Jeff Bridges and T-Bone Burnett. I didn’t want that song to define my career and everything that I had done up to that point and the thought that I couldn’t keep growing and trying new things or experimenting with music. I didn’t want it to inhibit my chances of learning new things. It can put you in this spot where you are not expected to try anything outside of those walls.

Tomorrowland had a song dedicated to your parents, Never Far Behind. The passing of your parents is something you have previously talked about. How much do you think that the influence of childhood colours your work, especially on this album?

A lot, I think. It has influenced it from the very beginning, growing up the way that I did and being out on my own from a young age. Music and song-writing was always my voice and the way that I could process the world around me. I could write stuff in songs that I couldn’t say in conversations with people around me. It was never about wanting to be like the Beatles. I had this guitar and found a way to get things off my chest and it was very personal to me. The rest of it came later.  

On the latest release there is a trio of songs - Nobody Knows My Trouble, Broken Heart Tattoos and the title track Fear & Saturday Night - that seem to address what marks us in life and how we navigate a path through to renewed hope. How hard is it to balance the autobiographical exposure in your songs with the desire for personal privacy?

It used to be a fine line but as I’m getting older, I’m becoming a little less insecure. I think a lot of that has to do with my parents passing away. Back when they were still alive, a lot of those issues were what I was writing about and some of that stuff was still on the table. So, even doing interviews, it was hard to talk about family stuff, even just thinking that my parents or my grandmother could hear it and be upset. I don’t feel that anymore now that they have passed away and everything is out in the open. I feel that I don’t have anything to hide and I don’t have anyone to protect anymore with it.

Do you ever write songs in character or a third party perspective?

I have tried to experiment with that a lot. Sometimes people can take things out of context and think that every song is personal and that is probably my fault because of the way that I have written in the past. That is something that I have had to learn as a song-writer, to revisit songs and make sure that I am saying stuff in the way that I want to say it and that it is not taken out of context or referred to in a certain way. Even if I don’t want to write about something that has affected me in my life, subconsciously it can sneak  its’ way in there and a year down the road I will listen to that song and what I was really trying to get at in the song becomes clear.

Rugged outlaw or earnest, intimate artist? 

That outlaw cliché comes around really easily. The rodeo and ranching is what I grew up with. My great grandfather came out west in a covered wagon and staked a claim on the land. I grew up in a ranching family and all I ever wanted was to be the same as them. I started playing guitar on the rodeo trips and the places in which I learned how to play were really rough, where people came to pick up girls, get drunk and fight. It was not an environment that was tailored to listening to singer songwriters. They just wanted noise in the corner and the cash registers ringing. Chicken wire to catch the bottles. The first time I encountered a listening audience was in Europe when I came to Dublin and London. Whelan’s and the Borderline in London had audiences that were quiet and listening to us. I remember turning to the band and saying “fuck”, we better get our stuff together, they’re actually paying attention to what we’re doing.  It was a completely different environment.

You often write from the perspective of the outsider and the underdog. The comparisons with Dylan and Springsteen have been made and songs like Direction of the Wind show a socio-political side to your writing. How much do you relate to an image of modern protest song writer?

Not that much to the image of being seen as a protest singer. Just meeting people with different cultures and views on life has really woken me up and made me realise that things were not always as I was taught growing up in a West Texas town. Dylan, Springsteen and Woody Guthrie were influences to me growing up and I remember thinking that I had never heard anybody say those kinds of things in a song before. I just started digging into it a little bit more and realising that they were relating to what I was experiencing in my own life. 

This tour is as a solo artist. How much do you enjoy the intimacy of a small acoustic setting with stripped down songs to the dynamic of having the band out with you? 

I really enjoy it and this is like a brand new experience where I have really gotten back to playing for an appreciative audience who just want to hear the songs as they were originally written. It’s really easy to just grab my guitar and a bag and go on the road.

With a number of dates in different European cities how different are audiences in Europe and America?

A lot of it is different. Different cultures within America exist so it really varies. Certain places are more rowdy, boozed up and pretty wild. Then I can play in a city where everybody wants to just hear the songs. In Europe it can be less of a party and more for an artistic experience.

With the distribution changes in the music industry, as an independent artist, do you have concerns over the move towards free music and the apparent indifference towards the artist and his survival?  

In the big picture I probably would. It would be great to get compensated as an artist for your recorded work. For as long as I have been playing I never relied on that and I have been used to singing for my supper and playing live on the road. I learned a lot from touring with Willie Nelson in America and how to tour ‘bare bones’ and guerrilla style. Take a couple of guitars and a small crew and leave the big production at home. Just let the music speak for itself. We would play these big shows with Willie and they would keep it so simple. Selling merchandise and t-shirts is important and keeps you alive on the road, especially since we started our own label.

The case with Axter Bingham Records and the creative freedom it brings? 

Well t brings more control and having somebody that really cares about what you are doing out there. Unless you are a big band that is making a lot of money, the big labels do not have the same element of care for artists and the staff move around a lot in the careers without any artist loyalty. With my wife doing the organizing, I know that the details are going to be taken care of. 

You have been working on a film with your wife. What will be your involvement with that?

The film is now done and edited. My wife, Anna, shot it last September and October and I am writing the score and the soundtrack for it. It’s a project and story that she co-wrote and directed. It’s her first feature film and all her idea. I do some acting in it.  

On your website you have a series of songs under the heading Bootleg. What attracts you to these or any other songs?

A lot of them are songs that I have been a fan of myself or that inspired me. Others are songs that fans asked for. On social media, people say to do certain songs and it has been fun for me sitting down and learning those songs.

Finally, how do you measure your success?

Success is a funny word for me. I feel really lucky that I can play music for a living and have it put a roof over my head, have some food on the table at the end of the day. It is more than I could ever ask for and way more than I ever expected. I never expected that I would have the opportunity to play music for a living and travel all over the world and experience all the things that I have experienced. It has been a hell of a trip…!

 

Interview by Paul McGee

Monday
Jan262015

Interview with My Darling Clementine's Michael Weston King

What was the initial impetus to start the My Darling Clementine project, was it the possibility of working together or some other factor?

We both felt it was time we joined forces, rather than doing our own solo things. Lou had been out of the scene for a while, mainly due to being a Mom (though she still had found time to do a UK tour with The Brodsky Quarter and front the They Call Her Natasha stage show) but she had not made an album for quite a while and so working together seemed an good way of getting Lou back in the saddle.  I was looking for something different too I guess, and I had toyed with the idea of making a duets album before, but using different singers for each song. But, in my opinion, I am married to one of the best female singers in the country so I just used her for them all. 

After a fruitful solo career and playing with The Good Sons did you feel it was time to try something different?

Quite simply I wanted to get back into show business! Essentially I had been troubadouring for a long time, since The Good Sons split, and boy, it gets very lonely out there.  I also wanted the excitement of being on stage with a full band again, and even though some MDC shows are just Lou and I, more often than not it is the full 7 piece band which is so exciting when in full flow. I also looked at artists like Richard Hawley and Imelda May, who were having contemporary success with essentially non-contemporary music and felt MDC could do the same with the country duet

How easy was it to tap into that traditional mode of country and write songs that could easily have been recorded by the likes of George and Tammy?

Not too difficult, as I have been writing songs like that for a while but often they did not get used simply as they were too country, certainly for The Good Sons. And then when I started making solo albums, I was actively trying to move away from country so they did not fit those albums either. So, some of the songs on the MDC debut, How Do You Plead? had been lying around for a few years but, I also did my homework too. I listened to a lot of classic country back in the 80’s and I went back and listened all over again, and it was marvelous to hear how that music (Hank, George, Willie and Merle, Loretta and Porter and Dolly) still sound so bloody good. 

Are the songs in that genre more easy to write, I suspect from a craft viewpoint they take as much work as any of your songs?

Very much so. You are writing for two voices so that immediately is a different discipline, and in the great tradition of the classic county song, you are looking at 3 minutes in length too (even though we have stretched that on occasion) To say what needs to be said, to tell a story succinctly, clearly and poignantly in just 8 or 12 lines is very hard, that is why people like Hank Williams, Harlan Howard, Merle Haggard should be so admired. They are the masters of that. It’s much easier to ramble on over 10 verses. It is much harder to get to the point. 

Was the country music of the 50s and 60s a strong influence and how difficult was it to make the songs relevant to a contemporary audience?

We went into the studio (Gold Top in Chalk Farm, where Nick Lowe had made has past few “quiet” albums)  with the remit of making an album as if it we were in 1969 Nashville, and try and cut it just like a George and Tammy record. We handpicked the players who we knew totally got what we were doing and who understood the genre as good as anyone, and probably a damn sight better than most current Nashville sessions players.   

We did not really think about the audience we were aiming for at the time, we made the album initially for ourselves and we were we are at, both musically and in life as a married couple.  Some of the songs on How Do You Plead?  were scenarios we have made up, or been made aware of 2nd hand from watching other couples, but a number of the songs reflected what had been going on in our own lives. And we certainly continued that theme to a greater extent on the 2nd album The Reconciliation.  

The themes of the great country duets are timeless and apply to all people, especially couples of a certain age. Couples in their 40’s nowadays are essentially dealing with what couples in their 40’s had to deal with in the 60’, 70’ and 80’s.

The “bickering” couple is an entertaining construct and I’d imagine you are both able to draw inspiration from around you and from you own life. We’ve all been there at some time but how do you find translating those emotions into song?

Worryingly, a little too easy!  When it comes to being on stage, yes we play it for laughs at times, but some times, if we have just had “a moment” before we go one, than those barbed comments are delivered with a real genuine feeling. We have not yet had an actual bust-up on stage but we have come close a few times. With the writing it is different because even if you write when in an angry frame of mind towards each other -  it tends not to last so your feelings may well have changed when completing the song. The angry songs, the songs of regret are maybe little vignettes based on other peoples lives rather than ours.

How serious then do you see the songs being, how firmly is the tongue in your collective cheeks?

Lou often says that we take our music deadly seriously but not ourselves. I would tend to agree, but even the songs that may rise a wry smile such as I Bought Some Roses, No Heart In This Heartache are harking back to songs like Jackson, or We Ought To Be Ashamed, songs that were a little tongue in cheek but still fabulous songs, poignant too. There is a long tradition of ‘funny’ songs in country music so we do embrace that as well as the darker stuff. 

A song like Ashes, Flowers and Dust is much rawer and emotional. Is it important to balance the apparent humour with that deeper message?

I think so, it gives the albums an emotional variety that keeps the listener interested.  But at no point do we think “oh we had better write a song like this, or like that.”   Ashes, Flowers and Dust just had to be written. We had both recently lost a parent and as songwriters you are naturally going to reflect a huge moment like that in a song. And to some extent, No Matter What Tammy Said also. Domestic violence has been around for years and thankfully there now seems to be a real focus on trying to highlight it, and reduce it. It is discussed on the radio, in the press, on-line etc. and again, as a song writer Lou reflected something she/we felt strongly about. 

The fact we are working in a the classic country idiom then yes, we can follow a song on such a dark subject, with a light hearted kind of tounge-in-cheek song such as Leave The Good Book On The Shelf which is influenced by such early George Jones songs as That Ain’t Right. It makes for a nice juxtaposition on an album.

The two albums have been very well received critically and with your audience and have made inroads into the mainstream. Was that something that surprised you or did you feel it would be welcomed at a time when country music is in a constant flux?

I always felt these we would maybe reach a bigger audience than my solo work. These songs are very instant and very accessible so we found we could play a whole set of brand new songs to an audience that had not heard any of them before and they really got them immediatley. The songs are also high on melody, something which I am very passionate about so again, a strong melody sticks in peoples minds and connects immediately. 

You have played at the Americana Music Association festival in Nashville what was the reaction of the “coals to Newcastle” dimension of playing in the heart of the genre?

It was fabulous, but there have been many before us who have gone there and sung their own music back at them. Just a matter of it you do it well or not. We played one show at The Station Inn, one of the older, more trad. venues and we chose to end our set by singing She Thinks I Still Care which really could have gone badly and seen us bottled off. Thankfully it didn’t and we left the stage to a standing ovation. Maybe they were just applauding the song!

You are planning to record a third album next year and in doing so using a new producer and set of musicians. How does the change of players and producers affect the direction the recording will take?

He/they will have new and different ideas, may well have a new approach as to how we record, even what instrumentation used. Even though the MDC ethos is all albeit great players playing real instruments and the use of classic country instruments, I  would like to break away from the steel /fiddle/acoustic guitar set up for the next one. I was really pleased with how we used horns on the 3rd album and most definitely want more of that on the next one. That deep south Muscle Shoals kind of horns. 

Is there anyone you would like to work with?

As a producer, Joe Henry and hopefully we will have him on the 3rd album. I would also like to get Elvis out of “production retirement”, we could make a great album with him. Cowboy Jack Clement also, but sadly too late for that now. 

You have both released solo albums. Have you both put that option on hold to pursue My Darling Clementine for the time being?

We have. As I mentioned, Lou was on something of a hiatus anyway, but she is now back in the game totally as one half of MDC and not looking beyond that at the moment, but who’s to say she wont make a solo album again - maybe when she finally leaves me she will.  For the past two years I have been syphoning away songs that will make up a new solo album at some point. I would like to record it in 2015 and I have plans for where and how. Two of my favorite albums of the past year or so have been Robbie Fulk’s Gone Away Backward and Guy Clark’s My Favourite Picture Of You, and I think I would go down that simple, spare route for the next MWK album, certainly the new songs would suit that same approach that Guy and Robbie took on those albums.

The state of country music in the UK with acts writing, playing and recording original material seems pretty  healthy at the moment. Why do you think that is?

Country music, mainly in the guise of Americana, has now become acceptable and accepted, by a younger audience. It has inspired UK artists to emulate rather than copy. For years UK bands just played covers to keep the line dancer’s happy, There is a different circuit now and folk clubs have become acoustic music clubs which have embraced Americana, and roots music, and country influenced singer songwriters too (singer songwriter is also no long a dirty word, well two).  I don’t go to line dance places/country clubs were folks dress up but I guess there are still bands churning out hits by the likes of Georgia Florida Line,what have you, but there are more turned kids being influenced by the likes of Ryan Adams so, like him or not, that has to be a good thing.

Music stills seem to be your passion, have you ever lost that urge to write, play and perform?

Sometimes, for sure. It is a frustrating life at times, and it can often be a battle to carry on but I love playing and being out on the road -  it has been my life. When there is a break , the thought of going back out can seem daunting but once out there and you play a great show, and are all in the bar at the hotel after, then you remember why you love it so.  I love seeing new places. I get restless. Next month we are touring Austria, Germany and Switzerland and the month after that the west coast of the States. It is a lot of work and hassle and head scratching to keep it going, to make it happen, but you can’t buy experiences like that. It isn’t a job, it’s a vocation. Just like to Lou, I am married to music, for better or worse, for richer or poorer

What are you hopes for the future of My Darling Clementine and beyond?

Short term, that we get the deal and consequently the funding needed to cut the next album the way we want, where and with who we want. That we keep improving as writers and musicians and make a album better than the first two. Then for that album to build on what we have done so far, reach a newer and bigger audience and just keep on doing what we are doing, in a general upward direction

We are also busy with this new ‘music and spoken word‘ collaboration with best selling crime writer Mark Billingham, who has written a short story based around 7 of our songs. It’s called The Other Half  - it is set in a run down bar in Memphis, and tells the tale of various couples who frequent the bar as seen through the eyes of the faded glamour, aging waitress, Marcia. Mark reads, we play and the show is presented with great back projection images of the deep south and Memphis in particular.

We kicked it off last November with 4 performances which went very well. The last one was at The Crossing Border Festival in  Den Haag. Mark could not make that one so we had Graham Parker reading there. We were thrilled as GP long been a musical hero of ours

We have now cut an album of The Other Half which features Graham and also the fine actor David Morrissey.  The album will be out in May, released by the publisher Little Brown. We are launching it at the Laugharne Weekend in Wales in April, taking it to Edinburgh for a week in August and touring it on and off from May - October.

So,  I am excited to see how people react to that, and the album in particular - The album is in the spirit of those great Terry Allen albums, like Juarez, or that play he did with Joe Ely and others called Chippy. Maybe someone will make into to a TV drama or film, who knows. It is about time one or two of our songs made it into a movie.

Interview by Stephen Rapid      Photography by Ronnie Norton