Justin Townes Earle: The Good Life

It must be hard living for an aspiring songwriter with a pedigree marked by the names “Townes”” and “Earle.”” It’’s no wonder it took this Southern son time to realise it’’s not his role to try to imitate these roots. After a misspent youth trying to find his voice in various bands, Earle rid himself of his self-destructive ways. Without these “high” expectations,” he focused on the songs. The result is a dazzling debut marked by loneliness and loss. Earle’’s voice is tender and shares more similarities with Hank Williams than his dad. By mining old-time country traditions and mixing in a sprinkling of acoustic blues, the 25-year-old hits all the right notes. “Lone Pine Hill”” is a haunting Civil War ballad that also resonates as a modern parable about the costs of war. On “Who Am I to Say,”” the sober songwriter confronts his past, quietly asking: “Who cares where you find comfort/I’’m no one to deny anybody what they need to take them through a night.”” Put this disc on and get lost in its powerful pull of storied songs sure to get you through the night. This is music from the side of Nashville that really matters.

The Good Life has a real old-timey feel to it. Was this intentional?
The way I write songs, that’’s just the way it comes out. I’’ve never had to try to make songs sound old. For me, it’’s just a sensibility, as far as songs go, and what I’’ve paid attention to in my life.

Is there a song on the new record that you are most proud of?
I love “Hard Living.”” I wrote it when I was 17-years-old and it’’s one that made it through all of these years.

How do you fit into Nashville?
I do my best not to fit into this town. The problem is they don’t make country music on Music Row anymore. It’s always been a singer-songwriter town, it’s just unfortunate the Music Row machine corrupts many of them and turns them into douche bags overnight by getting them to write crap for Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith, stuff like “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.”” There is a lot more to this town than the Row, but it’’s still a shark tank. People come here with high hopes and usually six months later you see them running out of town with their tail between their legs.

What was it like recording at House of David?
Working in House of David was amazing. I really like it a lot and plan to keep making records at that studio for a while. I think the whole thing was easy to do, as we brought the right songs, put them on the table, got the right musicians and we didn’t have to cull them too much. They got the idea how the songs represented themselves. We made this record really fast; it was the only thing that was kind of headache about it. We tracked, mixed and mastered this record in seven days. We did it in December and it’s coming out in March. We got with the right label, who said they could move it fast and we said we could make it fast, so we pulled about four 16-hour days in the studio tracking, mixing and mastering and then had a day or two off.

Some of the songs on The Good Life were written many years ago. Did that help when you entered the studio?
That definitely helped. Also, I’’m not a hands-off songwriter. When I’’m writing songs, I think in terms of more traditional country music and more traditional forms no matter what they are, whether it’’s blues or country music. [On] all those old country records, the steel parts answered the lyrics and the piano parts answered the steel and stuff like that, so I tend to have a pretty precise design of what everything is going to be as I’’m writing these songs. With the lyrics, there are certain notes and feels you get from spinning an instrument around in your head that can really help with the vibe of a song. Unfortunately for me, I’’m always thinking and sometimes that backs me into a corner. But when it came to making this record, it was a matter of everything coming together quick and right that created the vibe of this record.

Most of these songs, like “Hard Living,” are autobiographical in nature? Does that define your songwriting approach?
Most of my songs are, except for when it comes to story songs like “Long Pine Hill”” and “The Ghost of Virginia.”” Those were study songs, stories that I made up, but I’’m a big Civil War buff, so when it comes to story songs usually those are based on historic things, but not historical fact. When it comes to the regular songs, I try not to write about anything I don’’t know about. You’’ll never hear me write a song about ploughing a damn field because I ain’’t never ploughed no damn field and I’’m scared of cows, so there aren’’t going to be any farmhand songs coming out of me unless it’’s a story song where I’’m the narrator. That is one of the things that irritates the shit out of me about a lot of the old-time music being made these days. It’’s these kids that are younger or a few years older than me and they are writing this crap, these songs that are absolutely unreachable. You hear them usually what they are doing is cutting and pasting already written songs in the first place —they are writing songs about ploughing fields and the dustbowl, shit like that. You know what, write a song that has a ’98 Ford Taurus in it and that’’s where you are going to find your ground because that’’s what you know. Sometimes I stop myself from doing it. I’’m writing a murder ballad right now where I think for once the girl is going to get the guy. It is based in a mountain town, but it’’s based in modern times. The kid drives a ragged-ass 1982 Camaro and works at the Eastman Kodak factory in East Tennessee.

So, when writing these story songs, it’s more about reinterpreting and modernising age-old tales?
That’’s what Springsteen did to Woody Guthrie’’s music and that’’s what Dylan did to Woody Guthrie’’s music and that’’s what made them the writers that they were. They didn’’t sit down thinking they were writing the Great American folk song. As Dylan said in No Direction Home, he was not creating anything new, he was just working with existing forms and putting them into the words of the times.

That has to be toughest thing, putting your own stamp on the music, especially considering your name and the pedigree you’ve been given.
As far as the whole pedigree thing goes, I think everyone who interviews me goes, “you probably are going to hate this but I’m going to ask you a question about your dad and a question about Townes Van Zandt.”” That never bothers me because if my dad was terrible, I might have a problem with people bringing him up. I know people do and will and have in the past had big expectations of what I was going to be, but their expectations were more expecting me to show up with a bandana tied around my wrist with a beard and to sing with a gruff voice. It’’s more of a visual thing, what they are expecting. Where my dad came to a fork in the road and went pretty modern – —took old styles and modernised them -— I came to the same fork in the road and I turned the opposite direction and took it back. Musically, I’’m a lot more of a traditional musician and I think it surprises many people at first when I come out and do that. In my early years of writing, I really struggled with it, as when I was a teenager I was trying to write the great American folk song. I thought I had to live up to Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle and all the other people who came before me, like David Olney. I thought I had to live up to all these people. It was a really miserable existence feeling like I had something so big, such a towering thing to live up to and I think it was when I got over that, when I finally got cleaned up and I had glimpses of it —because I’’d written some of the songs before I got cleaned up —but it was after I got cleaned up that I said I’’m just going to let my songs do what they do. They are going to come out how they come out and I’’m going to go out and represent those songs the best that I can and not worry about the great American folk song, not worry about my last name or any other names tagged onto me, just give it hell.

Why do you think Canada has a love-in for traditional music?
Canada has the same grasp that Europe has for more traditional music. For some reason, there is only a line that divides the United States with Canada, but it’’s like when you cross that line into Canada the music that I make or my father makes or Townes makes or Guy Clark makes, that music is worth a whole lot more up in Canada with y’’all. It’’s one of those unexplainable things. Canadians and Europeans appreciate Southern American music more than anyone in America. I guess you’’ve got to be an import. We even have those dividing lines in the States, as I always do well in New York. I’’ve got a really thick Southern accent and I talk a lot on stage and I’’m pretty animated on stage and so it’’s almost like they are seeing something they have never seen before. I might as well be speaking in German.

Avett Brothers continue their fast pace

Scott Avett passes time at the Starheel in Charlottesville, Va., as his heavily touring band the Avett Brothers get ready to open up for Michelle Shocked that evening. The band is busy working on a few new songs, so this helps pass the time that Scott labels, ‘hurry up and wait.’ During this waiting period, the 27-year-old banjo picker is only too happy to talk about his band’s unique brand of mountain music.

“I always like talking to someone that is willing to listen.”

Upon a first listen, the simple, honest, back porch songs weave their spell on an unsuspecting listener. Soulful singing and two-part sibling harmonizing is combined with some hooting and a hollerin’ and some rhythmic pickin’. It occupies a space somewhere between bluegrass, alt.-country, juke-joint era jazz and folk. Groups such as The Band and early Uncle Tupelo share some of the Avett’s acoustic leanings.

The Avett Brothers, based out of Concord, N.C., near Charlotte, are currently touring throughout the U.S. promoting their fifth release – Mignonette recorded this past spring with 17 songs and more than 70 minutes.

The title was taken from Neil Hanson’s book The Custom of the Sea about an English yacht – the Mignonette – that sank in a storm in 1884 off the coast of Africa. Four survivors escaped in a small dinghy without food or water. After 19 days, the men killed and ate the weakest member of the crew. Five days later they were rescued and the Captain Tom Dudley – a man of honor – told the story of the cannibalistic act they had participated in to the Crown. His honesty got he and his surviving mates a charge of murder brought against them and a date with the Gallows Pole.

The Avett Brothers stumbled upon this story and found Dudley’s honesty an inspirational tale that helped shape their album. This broad concept of candor was then weaved into the thematic structure of many of the songs.

“When the concept came, it helped us to conclude it and put it all together,” says Scott, describing the album’s evolution. “We were really moved by that – a true story that was amazing – and felt it was really noble what he (Dudley) did, and we couldn’t really let go of that.”

“Swept Away (Sentimental Journey)” the hauntingly beautiful track that opens “Mignonette” features a duet with the Avett’s sister Bonnie.

“Bonnie had never recorded before, so it was something we knew would be as natural as you can get,” he says. “It wasn’t going to be someone jumping in there – a senior at it…she was definitely a freshman at it, but we knew that it would probably capture some of that, which would be great because she’s got a great voice.”

The lyrics to this song epitomize the Avett’s honest and simple approach to songwriting with words such as “Who cares about tomorrow/What more is tomorrow/ then another day.”

Making music for the Avetts is truly a family affair, and without brotherly love, this partnership wouldn’t have survived the rigors of the road. The two brothers (Scott on banjo and vocals and Seth on guitar and vocals) comprise two-thirds of the unorthodox power trio. Bob Crawford on standup bass joins them. The group originally started in 1998 as a side project to their then rock band, Nemo.

For “Mignonette,” their father Jim Avett also contributed his original recording of “Signs.” Seth’s wife Sarah also adds a violin on the latest of the “Pretty Girl” series of songs, “Pretty Girl at the Airport.”

“As far as working with family, Seth and I get along real well,” Scott says. “Early on we had taken some trips on our own – self-motivated panhandling trips across country where we would just play wherever we could. During those trips, our father had told us you are each other’s best friend and you are going to get irritated with each other and frustrated with each other. But, you can’t let that take over…there is a lot of bad out there, and you have to depend on each other.

“If we are going to start to argue, eventually we just shut up.”

Mignonette adds three new songs to the now five-song pretty girl canon – the aforementioned “Pretty Girl at the Airport,” “Pretty Girl from Cedar Lane” and “Letter to a Pretty Girl.”

Scott explains how this repeating group of songs came about. “There’s a story in that,” he says. “It started with a song that was going to be called ‘A Song for Robin,’ but in an attempt to disguise it for the sake of one of the fellas in the band in trouble with his girlfriend, we changed it to “Pretty Girl from Matthews.” In that change, we thought about it and were like well Jimmie Rogers did that with Blue Yodels and just numbered them and just did that over and over… the subject matter is endless.”

“They are not necessarily love songs…I don’t think really any of them are,” he continues. “They are just experience songs with the person in mind that we are writing about…that’s just where it’s just kind of carried on.

“I mean there are zillions of beautiful woman. So, the series may never end.”

Until more pretty girls are found, Scott reveals that a live record from 2004 shows has been recorded and needs mixing. Here, according to Scott is where the band’s sound is best appreciated. “Our live show is truly how people get it (our music) a lot of the times,” he says. “It’s much more raucous than the record…they can be similar to a hard rock show sometimes.” The band hopes to release this new offering in next six months.

“We don’t really know how much time we have in this life,” he philosophizes. “So, the way Seth and I go about it is by continuing to write, continuing to write and just try to put as much as we can. I got a feeling that before we know it, we’ll be old and we’ll be looking back, so we are going to get as much recording down as we can.”

Rhythm of the road: running celebrity Luke Doucet

You’d expect that Canadian indie musician Luke Doucet would log serious mileage on a cross-continent tour. But how about 100K per week on his legs?It’s all part of staying happy, says the five-time marathoner.

Luke Doucet has an insatiable appetite to achieve. Whether it’s honing his guitar chops or improving his last running times, the songwriter is driven by a passion for perfection. Currently in the midst of a North American tour with Whitehorse (the duo he plays in with wife Melissa McClelland), the musician is a relatively new runner. He started running three and a half years ago. At the end of his first week of running every day, he ran a half-marathon. Since then he’s completed five marathons and three half-marathons. In April, he was scheduled to compete in the Boston Marathon for the first time.

When the songwriter and I connected, he and McClelland had just crossed into the U.S., driving to Minneapolis, Minn., where Whitehorse was playing a gig the next night. Running is therapeutic, Doucet says. “It’s the most enjoyable part of my day,” he says. “Melissa will tell you that I never come home from a run in a worse mood than when I left. I’m always a nicer person – a happier person. It sounds like something that would be hard to squeeze in when you are on tour, but it’s actually become an essential part of my mental health.”

How does the musician squeeze in these training sessions, logging between 90k and 100k per week, with long runs up to 33k?

“I get a lot of help,” Doucet says. “We arrive in a new city in time to load in. In the hour it takes for the road crew to load the gear into the venue and set up before sound check, I can go for a good run.”

Doucet admits this rush to squeeze in a run is a blessing in disguise. “I’m usually conscious of the fact that I have to be back for sound check in 45 minutes,” he adds. “As a result, I tend to run fast because I’m trying to keep up with my schedule.

While Doucet does not listen to music during a run, it does inspire his writing. “I run quiet, but as a result, I write a lot of music when I’m running because it’s a very rhythmic thing. You’re breathing in time with the pace of your feet, so, in effect, your whole body is dancing,” he says. “I find running is a very musical experience.”

Songs such as “Devil’s Got a Gun,” from the latest Whitehorse record, The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss, was a product of running. “I had the guitar hook in my head for literally years before Melissa and I actually sat down and put words and chords together,” he reveals. “Our last record, Emerald Isle, which is about running to some degree, was also written during one of my runs.”

Last fall, in between Whitehorse gigs, Doucet ran both the Philadelphia Marathon and the Atlantic City Half-Marathon. In Atlantic City, he surprised himself with a personal best of 1:21, good for second place in the 30–39 category. “At about the eight-mile mark, my Nike+ watch started showing consistent declines in my average pace,” he recalls. “I freaked out because I felt like I was really pushing. So I pushed harder until about Mile 11 when I realized my watch had lost the satellite. Then I really panicked because all of a sudden I was running blind. I had no idea what kind of time I was running, so I pushed even harder. I had no idea I was anywhere near the front until they announced the winners.”

Doucet closes our conversation by crediting running coach Tania Jones who helped him train for several marathons in the past two years. “I suffer from a couple of problems. As a new runner and someone who approaches things ambitiously, I run the risk of injuring myself by being cocky,” he concludes. “Having somebody like Tania in my corner has been really wonderful.”


For award-winning songwriter Tom Cochrane, the refrain from his 1991 worldwide hit “Life is a Highway” is apropos. Travel and lifelong experiences drive Tom Cochrane’s inspiration.

On February 10, Cochrane released Take It Home, his first album of new material since 2006’s No Stranger. The disc is a cohesive collection of 11 songs that beg listeners to pack their bags and renew their passports. From Austin, Texas, to Ontario’s Georgian Bay and far-flung locales like Africa, Cochrane shares stories of people he’s met and experiences that have touched his heart. The record reflects the rock ’n’ roll hobo tradition epitomized by Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams. The catchy opener “I Can’t Stay Here” speaks to this restlessness.

“That tradition is still out there,” says Cochrane. “A lot of this record relates to travelling; it’s also a spiritual journey.”

One of the more poignant cuts, “A Prayer for Hope” was inspired by a World Vision-backed trip to Africa six years ago. “We met Margaret there, a mother dying of AIDS. We couldn’t do anything for her, other than pray,” says Cochrane, who captures his encounter with the lyrics: “Margaret sits by the hill and stares at her children, wonders what they’ll do when she’s gone.”

“I like to tell stories, I like songs that touch people in whatever way. It’s got to mean something,” says Cochrane, who started out as a folk singer/songwriter in Toronto in the 1970s, then toured the globe with his band Red Rider into the mid ’80s before his 1991 album Mad Mad World and its anthemic hit “Life is a Highway” made him a household name.

Asked to name a favourite locale, Cochrane cites a memorable gig in Germany. “We played this amphitheatre at Lorelei, which is high on a cliff, towering above the narrowest point of the Rhine River. I remember looking down at the old curve in the river as the sun was setting behind the stage…it was magical.”

To promote Take It Home, the restless rocker plans to hit the road again for a cross-Canada tour. He also plans to play some summer festivals.

“You’ve got to get out and play live,” says Cochrane. “I enjoy it. I went through a whole period where the magic was making records and I was terrified of performing. I can’t pinpoint the precise time when that changed, but people started responding to more than one of my songs, and I thought ‘This is fun…This is what it’s all about.”

Serena Ryder: Is It O.K.

“I’ve been broken too, how about you?” That’s the theme of Ryder’s new record. Following the success of If Your Memory Serves You Well, which went gold and won a Juno, the 25-year-old returns with a disc that oozes angst. The cathartic collection finds the singer with a broken heart searching for the “truth” that exists deep within us all.” Rather than running from it, she confronts it with music. Right from opener “Sweeping the Ashes,”” one feels this anger and sadness, and these feelings are sustained throughout the remaining 12 songs. Closer “Dark as the Black”” epitomizes the emptiness Ryder felt when she penned these songs. The melancholic, acoustically-inclined ballad, with its “one world/one love”” message of hope, hints at U2 and Bob Marley. And, like those prophetic artists, Ryder shows the world is in pain through well-crafted lyrics. She sings, “There’s a crack in the ground from old New York all the way to Minnesota/I can hear by the way 10,000 lakes are screaming for more water.”” Ryder’’s message is that our world is like our broken hearts: it’’s cracked and can’’t be mended until we acknowledge its sickness. Deep, yes, but delivered with her world-weary voice it’’s a message that hits home, showing the continuing maturation of this expressive songwriter.

Why is this record filled with so much angst?
It’’s based on things I’’ve experienced in the last little while. The world only caters to the fact that people are supposed to be happy and enjoy life, and sadness and anger are not really dealt with. It’’s a painful world; there are a lot of things going on in the world that are really painful. There are a lot of broken hearts walking around in denial. I noticed in myself there was a lot of that going on. It was okay to be happy but it wasn’t okay to be sad. It’’s one of those things that before the beginning of time, you just want to be happy all the time and I think the only way to achieve that true satisfaction with your life is to acknowledge your true feelings. This is a record of acknowledging where I was coming from and what I was going through at the time. It’’s been a very successful couple of years and I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do with my life: perform, live and tour around the world and play music. How great could that be? It’’s been amazing but then there have been all these ideals that can be shattered, like the idea that being a touring musician is a dream and it’’s all just a party and a lot of fun. But there is another side to it. You are going out there and sharing your very personal, true places of yourself with other people in the hopes that you can connect and communicate and feel like you are part of the same family. There is nothing like having someone know where you are coming from but that can also be painful to consciously be in that conversation.

It’’s a little ironic then that Is It O.K. was recorded at the same studio where Rumors was born.
Absolutely. I was down to two producers for the record, both who I really loved. They were awesome people and I couldn’t choose between them. I was out with one of them and I sent a little message out to the universe while he was up getting our food. “You have to help me out here, universe, and let me know if this is or isn’t the producer I’’m going to be working with,” I asked.” He sat back down, we started talking and I said my favourite record is Fleetwood Mac’’s Rumors and he said, “no way, that was recorded in my studio,”” so it was a done deal. Another of my favourite producers, T-Bone Burnett has a space in his studio as well. Later, I learned the Maharajah recorded there with the Beatles and the Stones; it was pretty awesome.

Did you feel like you were channelling Stevie Nicks a little?
Not really but I definitely felt the history in the building. There was a magic that was there that you could almost catch it and taste it. The history in a building is something I have always been intrigued with and I’’ve always been pulled to; I can feel the energy of what has gone on before. When I got there I definitely felt that and it was a huge inspiration. Recording the songs in Stevie Nicks’’ vocal booth was absolutely surreal; they lit candles for me and there were stained glass and mirrors everywhere. It was a total throwback; it was amazing. It felt like a vacation to me, like I was inside a movie.

What’’s the significance of the title, Is It Ok?
It’s really about connecting, taking the time to connect with that inner voice to really find the truth to what is going on outside of you. You need to take time and make space to have quiet time and listen to that part of yourself to see what’’s going on and live a life of truth.

Tell me about album closer “Dark as the Black.”
I wrote several of those songs after I had just lost someone in my life who was really close to me. Bonnie O’Donnell, who was my co-manager; she was an amazing woman, died young of pneumonia at 32. It was very sudden and very tragic. It totally threw my world for an absolute loop and still has. It’’s very odd to not have her around because we worked together for about six years and we were close friends. That led to an onset with a lot of my connection with sadness and darkness. That particular song starts out about a relationship and how there is sadness when you have your heart broken. Then, the second verse is about that relationship in regards to the place you are at in your life: your relationship with your surroundings, your home. The last verse is about how that is a total microcosm of how the world works and how the world is in a lot of pain. Yes, there is a lot of good in the world and a lot of amazing things happening but there is this overriding sadness and sickness that is happening and has been for a long time. You can’t get any darker than a really deep hole. You can’’t see the end of it [but] it just needs a little spark of light to change it. Everything in the world that is alive has a voice and that’s the line about “10,000 lakes screaming for more water.” Connecting our personal experience in our body to that of the world, it is really the same thing. We can find all the answers to what is going on out there inside ourselves and that can be really painful, but I think that is the most important and courageous thing that we can do.

You’’re already a seasoned songwriter at 25. Do you have any reflections on your career?
The more I do this the younger I feel because there is that saying, and I don’t even know if it is a real saying, but it’’s something I thought of that I’’m sure has been out there for a long time: the more that I’m alive the less I know and the more I think I know the less I know. I’m finding that with being a musician and touring and just being alive in these times.

There are photos of Toronto’’s Dakota Tavern in the liner notes. Any significance?
Dear friends of mine own it and I was there a few days after they opened it. I was sad I missed the exact opening day, as I was on tour. It means a lot to me. That’’s where I go when I want to see my friends when I’’m home from tour because I know they’’ll be there.

Bobby Long: A Winter’s Tale

Every day songwriters send their songs out to the world. Usually it’s the voice that grabs you and makes you listen longer. That’s the case with this new voice from across the pond. From the moment Bobby Long’s songs burst from the speakers, you are captivated with the world-weary, blues-soaked tones that this young songwriter possesses. Think the soul of John Lee Hooker mixed with the storytelling knack of Bob Dylan. His poetic songs paint pictures of the universal landscapes we inhabit and the daily sins we commit. Like Henry David Thoreau, Long seeks inspiration from nature and from the ghosts and words on the page of writers’ past. Produced by Grammy-winner Liam Watson (the White Stripes’ Elephant), A Winter’s Tale features an all-star backing band and a live-off-the-floor feel. With a mournful, hypnotic guitar driving this journey, Long lets his words float in the spaces in between the instruments; his simple observations capture large landscapes, tackling life, loss and love. The bluesy “Who Have You Been Loving?” speaks to an unfaithful act and features lovely backing vocals. Long repeatedly questions the faithfulness of a lover and puts the onus on the one who wronged him to “owe an apology.” Listen to this voice. Let its soul seep into your soul. It’s time well spent.

Your blues influences really come out on this record. How did you become attracted to the blues growing up in England?
My dad was into it. I really liked it. When I first picked up my guitar, I discovered you can learn so much from blues players. It’s a sinful form of music and there is so much emotion in it. The lyrics, with topics such as “this woman’s left me” or “the devil’ or ‘drinking,” all that kind of stuff, as a kid, I found cool and exciting. The stories of the artists, such as Robert Johnson and SunHouse, felt otherworldly; I felt like these guys were from another planet.

Did you channel that otherworldliness into your music?
It’s had a lyrical effect, for sure. Topics like your girlfriend leaving you, not having any money and somehow being oppressed, those subjects all come out on A Winter’s Tale.

Any particular songs that are more soaked in this blues influence than others?
“Who Have you Been Loving?” asks that blues-kind of message. I think of the blues as you versus the world; I felt that way with that song. As a songwriter, you always feel like it’s you against the world.

Raul Midon: Lyricist’s Lounge

With performances on David Letterman, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, and The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson behind him, plus rave reviews already in for his major label debut State Of Mind, New York-based songsmith Raul Midon continues to turn heads. His live performances are known to leave people breathless and hypnotized with his soulful delivery and accomplished percussive finger-style guitar playing. Midon’s father was a professional dancer, originally from Argentina and he tried to get his son to dance, but Raul was too self-conscious. Instead, he admits that he banged on things as a kid and that’s how he developed his unique guitar style, along with a lifelong love for songs and songwriting.

ChartAttack: As a blind person, how do you “see” the world?

Raul Midon: The closest way that I see the world other than living in it is through literature. In literature pictures have to be described with words, so it really helps me imagine a lot of things, which is what you have to do when you are blind. In a way, it’s also a disadvantage as a songwriter because I tend to be very psychological as a writer. I mean, I ask myself, “Can I write about a sunset if I’ve never seen one?” The answer is that the sunset has to be symbolic in some way for me to write about it… maybe it always is anyway. I know that I’ve worked with DJs and they are always looking out and seeing how the audience is responding to something and performers do that. Maybe it’s better to just be yourself and let them respond the way they are going to respond.

What makes a great song?

I think there has to be a central idea that you’re talking about… an idea with a twist. I always like to be surprised. I like good melodies somewhere in there and then the twist in the lyrics, a song that you thought was about a great relationship turns out to be about a relationship that never was, anything like that is something that I love. And I just love great wordsmiths.[Midon quotes the Cole Porter love song “Laura”]”Laura is a face in the misty light/ footsteps that you hear down the hall/ a laugh that floats on a summer night/ that you can never quite recall”
That’s an incredible lyric.

Writing a song is not writing poetry, the words have to sound good and they have to sing good. You may have a lyric that is very meaningful, but it doesn’t sound good. There is a lyric that I love from Tapestry. I always love the song “Too Late”… “Something inside has died and I can’t hide and I just can’t fake it…” It just sounds great to sing, it’s a great lyric.

Who influences you outside the world of music?

I’ve always been influenced by people who transcended. I mean Martin Luther King knew he was going to give his life for what he did. Malcolm X, Gandhi is a transcendent person, maybe some people who died for what they believed in. It wasn’t a media hype thing. What is so ironic about it is that they died; yet they are immortal. They are going to be influencing people from now until the end of time.

Corb Lund: Embraced By the Old-timers

Corb Lund is a lover of all things country — well at least all things that are not mainstream Nashville country. That, he could do without. Lund is all about staying true to his rural Alberta roots and using his experiences as a way to explore universal themes in his music. On his latest disc, Hair In My Eyes Like A Highland Steer, the roots songwriter was lucky enough to work with some veterans of the country and folk music industry, namely Ian Tyson and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. While driving through Saskatchewan, Lund recently took time out from staring at the endless fields of wheat to chat about his relationship with these musical icons, his thoughts on Nashville and the buzz of playing live, whether for 12 or 1,200 people.

ChartAttack: Your most recent album was recorded in Nashville, but I know you don’t characterize your music as mainstream? How did you end up in the Music City and what are your thoughts on this musical milieu?

The thing that is interesting to me is that in this day and age a lot of the straight country stuff is pretty formulaic. My thing is that I’m a real fan of regionalism. I know guys that are shooting for that mainstream radio play and they write songs about Nashville and they write songs about California… I’m not criticizing it, but it’s just not how I would approach it. There are so many people making fake music and I just don’t relate to that. I write about what I’m familiar with. Nashville really does have a really cool underbelly. There are guys that go there because they are great players. There is also a really wicked history there with The Grand Ole Opry and Patsy Cline and stuff. The other thing is that when you record there if you need a wicked ragtime piano player there are three of them in your Rolodex that you can just call up. Harry [Stinson, producer] knows the right guy to get the right vibe on a particular song.

Tell us about your relationships with veterans such as Ian Tyson and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, both of whom make guest appearances on your new album?

One of the most satisfying things of this whole thing is meeting the older generation. I got to know the Good Brothers last year and that was cool. With Ian it was inevitable that we would meet eventually. We both live in Alberta and we both have the same Western themes in our songs and we are on the same label. I met him a couple of years ago and he’s been a really good friend, he’s a sweetheart. He’s been very supportive and helped me out with a lot of press, helped me on the front end of a lot of important shows. He’s become a really interesting friend to hang out with. After the first couple visits… every once in a while it will dawn on me that this is the guy that wrote, ‘Four Strong Winds’ We have good talks. He’s like a walking encyclopedia of cowboy history.

And Ramblin’ Jack Eliot?

I met him when we played some shows together a few years ago and we hit it off. I called him up and asked if he wanted to sing on this blues song (‘The Truck Got Stuck Talkin’ Blues’) on the new album and he said sure. His whole thing is talking. We did a few takes of the song in the studio and he’s telling all these amazing stories, so finally we just said hit the record button because the story before was even better than the one before. He lived with Woody Guthrie when he was in his teens and he was a big part of the New York/Toronto folk scene in the ’60s.

I’ve heard that playing live is the ultimate high for you. What is it about the live experience that makes it one of your favourite things?

One of my favourite things to do is sit in front of like six people and just play songs and chat. The communication aspect of it is what I really like. I’ve always felt sorry for painters and novelists because someone might come up to them and say they’ve read their book or that’s a fantastic painting, but with music you get instant feedback. You play for an hour and a half and it’s like a conversation. And you can feel it when you are connected with people. It’s a rush and I love it. We have all been to one of those special gigs as an audience member and it’s even better if you’re the one playing… if it’s going well. When I was a kid and getting into bands, the guys I always thought were the real thing were the guys in the punk rock band that would pull up to your town in a dirty old van and get out all scruffy and walk out and they could kick your ass. The guys that could pull it off live were it.

Rhett Miller: Stories & Girls Over Politics

When I speak with Rhett Miller he’s enjoying some rare quiet time at his home in upstate New York’s Hudson Valley. Things are especially quiet today because his wife took their two-year-old son Max and one of his friends off to the mall to get their pictures taken. As 2005 draws to a close, Miller can especially use this R&R since next year is set to be a busy one. The singer/songwriter is currently taking a break from his Old 97’s mates, but that doesn’t mean his muse is slowing down. Miller will release his second solo disc, tentatively titled The Believer, on the relaunched Forecast/Verve label at the end of February. He’ll tour behind this release with a new hand-picked band. He’s excited to be on a label that was once home to seminal artists Frank Zappa and Velvet Underground one – of his favourite bands growing up. Miller and the Old 97’s also recently played a part in the romantic comedy The Break Up, starring Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston. The brainy Miller took time recently to chat with ChartAttack about this Hollywood experience, music and politics, amongst other things.

ChartAttack.com: Tell us about your experience working on the upcoming Vince Vaughn/Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy The Break Up?

Rhett Miller: The penultimate scene takes place at an Old 97’s show in Chicago where [Aniston’s character] gets stood up and sits in the front row of the balcony crying. It was pretty cool… it was kind of a big deal. It comes out the same week as my solo record, so I figure it will do some good for the whole enterprise. Vince Vaughn is a fan and the guys he wrote the movie with are fans and apparently they listened to us a lot as they were writing the movie. The Old 97’s performed four songs in front of like 1,200 extras. It was bigger than filming a video because there were all the extras and Jennifer Aniston’s security team were presidential in scope. It felt like a big deal because this many years into your career without having any gold records or huge success, it was nice for the little perks to come along and remind you that you haven’t been entirely forgotten.

What inspires you to do a solo record?

I’ve always known that I would do solo stuff because the Old 97’s are such an opinionated, democratic situation. There is a lot of “no” that got said. There still is, but that’s the nature of a band because it’s the four different takes on what sounds good that makes a specific sound. So, I finally got to do it because the other guys were starting to have kids and we had been together long enough that it felt like we didn’t have to be constantly out there killing ourselves on the road. Artistically it’s been great because I get to do all sorts of stuff. On this new record coming out in February there are a lot of strings and some bigger, grander sounding moments on it that I never would have been able to do with the Old 97’s. It has kept the whole career fresh for me because I can do everything… I feel lucky that I get to have both.

How do you feel about Texan George W?

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but our president is a joke … it’s a little embarrassing. While I’m a proud Texan, I’m not so proud of the Lone Star State representative in the White House. I felt so bad during Bush’s first term when one of your politicians [Carolyn Parrish, a former liberal who remained in office as an independent] got drummed out of office because she called Bush an idiot.

How do you reconcile your personal politics with the music?

I don’t talk politics at Old 97’s shows. I’ve done it a few times and I ran into trouble. I did contribute a few songs to a pro-John Kerry, anti-Bush project before the last election. It’s a weird time now where you can point out so many things going wrong in our world, but I don’t feel you can do anything about it. And, frankly, I’ve never felt like it was the job of the musician to constantly comment on society. I would rather write an op-ed piece for The New York Times, rather than sing about it. I don’t like to listen to songs about politics, so I wouldn’t want to sing them. I just sing about girls and stuff like that.

What do you like to read and where do you find inspiration for your songs?

I like stories… the arc of a good story. You can’t escape the truth and there is a lot of non-fiction out there that is interesting and moving. But I really like fiction, contemporary stuff like DeLillo and David Foster Wallace and older stuff like Nabokov. I read a lot, but there is so much in life that you go through personally and you watch your friends and loved ones go through that there is never a shortage of fodder.

Tom Wilson: The Age of Battles

Tom Wilson has just risen from a midday nap when he calls. The TV is playing in the background and the songwriter starts into a rant about pop culture and its need to put everything into a list. He’s allowed a little rant though. He’s survived 30 years in the business they call rock ‘n’ roll, battling for sobriety and success all the while.

ChartAttack: What is it about people and lists?

Tom Wilson: My video is supposed to be playing on MuchMoreMusic these days, but each time I turn it on I find a list show of the top 10 things and I don’t understand it. It’s like the top 10 cocaine snorters and the Top 10 rock star car accidents… that kind of thing. Then, if you go over to CNN, they have all these polls… everything seems to have to do with lists. Not only do I not understand what’s going on in the world of music, I don’t understand what’s going on in the world when people are not dealing with creative issues or world issues. They are just making lists.
Instead of saying what we really have to do is clean up the water on native Indian reserves where people are dying of sickness outside our major cities, we would rather put together a list of the top 10 natural disasters that are going on in the world. Instead of saying “Let’s put together some solar power and let’s purify water that way” and “Let’s start it out by setting up the Six Nations indian reserve outside of Hamilton.”

It’s the same thing with music. I don’t think people have time to be getting involved in enjoying music because they are too busy trying to make lists of what is cool or what they think they should be listening to rather that what they are listening to.

Speaking of cool, you told me you don’t consider yourself cool. Why is that?

My whole goal in my creative life was just to be able to play music. I’ve never been too concerned about being cool and I never have been cool. When I was out playing Larry’s Hideaway and touring with Teenage Head in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I wasn’t in a cool band. I was in the Florida Razors. Two of the guys in the band had beards in a time when it was a pretty slick punk look and our sound was really what we made up at the time. When Junkhouse came out we were really uncool. It was at a time of shoe-gazing and alternative music. I never understood what any of that was and Junkhouse was kind of a rock ‘n’ roll band from Hamilton and we didn’t fit in because you were supposed to be an independent band. I was already in an independent band in the late ’70s so I don’t know what anyone was talking about.
I think Blackie And The Rodeo Kings is the coolest band on the planet, but it’s not a cool band. Even though people like the late Buck Owens and the late Johnny Cash were big fans of ours, we aren’t considered a country band even though we got to play the Country Music Awards. We aren’t a folk band because we have matching suits. And, we aren’t a rock ‘n’ roll band. If there is anything uncool in the world it’s probably a real musician.

How have you managed to survive 30 years in the music business?

I’m surviving with the people that I understood and related to 30 years ago who are still around playing music. I started playing music with people like Fred Eaglesmith. I think that my survival is just the desire to continue to play music rather than having a groovy haircut. My goal was never to be popular as much as it was to keep stepping on stones that allow me to keep playing music.

One of the reasons I’m doing three different projects at once is because I would like to consider myself an artist. Instead of getting on the phone to you and say “I’m an artist because I made a record” I would rather you could stand back and talk to me a year from now and be talking to me about another different record or two different records I’ve made. I like to have myself in a constant state of creativity rather than work on creating one thing that I think will be commercially right and having to stand on that for the next six years. I was with a record company that had to do business and I understood that and as a result I only got to do three records in eight years with them.

Tell me about your battle with sobriety?

I’ve gone six years now without a drink of alcohol and this is my third year without cocaine. I’m also in love again… not only with a new gal, but I also have my kids in my life again. You know, like the Buddhists say, nothing is permanent. There is nothing we can wrap our arms around for too long. Family is something, though, you definitely have to pay attention to. If I wasn’t an alcoholic or into drugs I’m definitely a workaholic also and I think that I’ve been able to find some kind of spiritual balance in my life, but I’m working on it constantly. When I say I was able to find it, it’s because I’ve been able to clear up my life a little bit and clear up my mind a little bit, but finding it is just the first step. It’s like keeping a ball up in the air or working a muscle. The battle is completely an enjoyable battle when you consider the reward is being with your kids and being with your loved ones and doing exactly what it is you want to do creatively in your life. If this is a battle, then I’m ready to put on the gloves every morning.