Kathleen Edwards Cleans the Slate

Over the years, I’ve interviewed sassy Canadian songwriter Kathleen Edwards several times and followed her career. With the release of Voyageur last month, which is getting lots of well-deserved critical buzz, I chatted with her for a cover story that just came out in Canadian Musician Magazine. We talked about her new direction – both personally, musically and professionally, and the influence of Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) on this new disc.

here’s the story that originally appeared in Canadian Musician.

Kathleen Edwards’ new album Voyageur, which dropped January 17 on Maple Music Recordings, is a cathartic journey in song; it’s about new beginnings — leaving the past behind and exploring the pain and healing surrounding the dissolution of her five-year marriage to former bandmate/guitarist Colin Cripps. While Edwards, 33, says things between her and Cripps are now amicable, she does not deny that this is her breakup record.

“The process of going through that was certainly reflected in the songs,” she admits. “He is still an important person in my life. I love him a lot … I don’t love talking publicly about my divorce, but I’m at the point where I think the material speaks for itself.”

Voyageur was recorded between August 2010 and May 2011 — mostly in Fall Creek, Wisconsin at Justin Vernon’s home studio and the rest of the bed tracks were laid down in Toronto at Caterbury Studios. The 10 cuts on her fourth full-length studio release, offer a personal, often painful, document of this lost love. Edwards hopes these songs will speak to others who have felt a similar loss. This sense of loss is seen even before spinning the new tunes on iTunes. One glance at some of the song titles scream out this theme: “House Full of Empty Chairs,” “A Soft Place to Land,” and “Change the Sheets.” Listening to the lyrics brings out this theme further – with lines such as “I’ve been feeling lost for so long.” “The tone is hushed on some songs, charged with boundless energy on others. Layers of sounds show the meticulous work that went into each guitar part and each vocal overlay. Edwards sounds like a bird with a broken wing at times, but she later soars like a bird that has relearned to fly.

“I’ve never felt as vulnerable in my whole life as I did when I finished this record,” reveals the songsmith. “I fought hard to make it a quality record. I wanted to do something different. It was hard because it is very personal material, but at the same time, I don’t know how to write songs that don’t mean anything to me. You put out things to the world that are obviously about you and you are judged, listened to, and analyzed; hopefully, people find themselves in my songs because what I experienced is like what a lot of other people go through. Maybe that is the comfort and reward … to realize I am not alone.”

As the title of one of the emotionally-charged songs on Voyageur says she’s “looking for a soft place to land.” Enter Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), who provided this pillow and made sure the songwriter wasn’t alone for long. Edwards was familiar with Vernon’s work, (not really a surprise since his band was nominated for four Grammy Awards in 2011.), and reached out to him first via e-mail.

“I was not even thinking about him producing the record,” Edwards comments. “I just thought we could work on a few songs and we did, but once that started it was pretty clear there was really good chemistry to continue working on a full record together.”

Following a brief hiatus from writing – and the tumult in her personal life – Edwards was ready to explore new musical territory, including trying to co-write. “I hadn’t really done this in the past and the idea was that it might lead to some breaking new ground in the way I write songs,” she explains. “That was one of the reasons Justin and I first reached out to one another. We both quickly realized we didn’t really like co-writing and we just went from there.”

While the pair didn’t co-write any songs, Vernon’s influence was huge on Voyageur; it’s heard in even the smallest musical ideas. The indie songwriter and his Canadian counterpart shared many dialogues about music; Edwards says he was full of great suggestions. “He was in tune with knowing where I wanted to go, so I was able to articulate a lot of things musically that I wanted to accomplish with this record.

During the songwriting stage, Edwards knew she needed to take a step back once in a while and figure out how to get the songs where they needed to go … it was an ongoing process — definitely not a go into the studio and record the songs in six days live-off-the- floor type of session.

“I would go to Wisconsin with some of the bed tracks and we would work on the colorings of them a bit,” Edwards says. “Then, Justin would work on these tracks and run some cool ideas through them. That’s how we built the record … piece by piece.”

Besides taking Edwards’ muse to new songwriting shores, Vernon’s influence guided this voyage; at the same time, the couple became fast friends. Voyageur is a journey; it’s this journey that the Toronto-based musician takes listeners on, on her first record since Asking for Flowers (2008), According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, “voyageur” means: “a French-speaking or Métis canoeman employed by merchants in Montreal to transport goods to and from trading posts in the interior.” Translate this to Edwards’ art and it’s the perfect title for this collection of songs and for her life as a travelling musician. Substitute the canoe with a touring van and rather than transporting goods, the artist is delivers songs from town to town. As the daughter of a diplomat, the songwriter spent parts of her childhood living abroad in places such as Korea and Switzerland. With this worldly youth, it was almost a given Edwards would choose a career that involved travelling.

The sharp-tongued songwriter says she’s always had a strong affinity for Canadian geography and describes herself as an “outdoorsy person,” having lived in different parts of Ontario. In between globetrotting with her dad’s job, she also spent childhood summers in northern Ontario, northern Quebec and the Northwest Territories. She’s also spent a lot of time driving around the Great Lakes, which no coincidence, are represented on Voyageur’s cover. Apart from the newfound relationship with Vernon and the split from Cripps, good old Mother Nature – a muse for poets and writers for centuries – also inspired this latest batch of songs. This love affair was rekindled when Edwards was chosen in 2010 to partake in the National Parks Project; this initiative to celebrate Parks Canada’s centennial saw 13 filmmakers and 39 musicians interpret this country’s national parks in a series of short documentaries and songs. Edwards spent five days in Wapusk National Park in northern Manitoba – the result was, “Wapusk,” which was released as a seven-inch single last fall.

“It was the first time I had been out in the woods for a few days at a time and it was a wonderful reintroduction to that part of my personality or part of my childhood that was such a formative thing in my life,” she explains. “I just fell in love with that whole aesthetic again. After five days, I left feeling like my life has been this incredible journey … I’m never in the same place very much and I’m always on the road. Emotionally and personally, everyone goes through critical experiences and they shape where you’re going and to whom you become. The journey of life is a pretty lame metaphor, but I’m a career traveler and it has affected my whole life … it’s a big part of who I am.

“I spend so much time on highways, at service stations, clubs and urban areas, so to go out to the wilderness again was very grounding,” she adds. “It was a big spark for sure.”

Following Asking for Flowers (2008), which made the Polaris Prize Short List, the creative sparks had dwindled like the dying embers of a firecracker; Edwards was burned out. A year and a half touring to promote the record took its toll. The road weary song slinger was tired of following the white line and living this life that she describes as not normal.

“You burn out pretty quickly when you spend a lot of time on the road and you just want to live a normal life for a while,” she explains. “Sometimes it’s as simple as saying, ‘I’m going to do some work in the garden today that I’ve ignored for the last year and a half or sometimes it’s I’m going to cook a meal. It’s funny some of the things you live without for long periods of time, then it occurs to you that you’ve gone to the polar opposite for a while and you just to get your feet back on the ground.”

Edwards says that, while the life of a touring musician appears glamorous to most, it is exhausting and you are never in charge of your schedule. One town and day just blends into another – think of the age-old rock joke where the performer says, “Hello [insert town]” and said star mistakes where he is playing.

“You are surrounded by people 24 hours a day, seven days a week and you have no routine,” Edwards comments. “Every day, you don’t know what is going to happen. There are days when you come home from the road and you say, ‘fuck, all I want to do today is get up, make a coffee, and stay in my pajamas all day.”

Speaking of people, besides Vernon, it was Edwards’ longtime friends and bandmates who she chose surround herself with for the Voyageur sessions. Joining Edwards were long-time bandmates and collaborators: Jim Bryson (guitars and keys), John Dinsmore (bass), Gord Tough (guitar), and Lyle Molzan (drums). Voyageur also includes guest appearances by Francis and the Lights, Norah Jones, Stornoway, John Roderick, Phil Cook (Megafaun), Sean Carey (Bon Iver), Afie Jurvanen (Bahamas) and Brian Moen (Peter Wolf Crier).

Toronto-based producer Ian Lefeubre, an old friend from Ottawa, oversaw the Hogtown sessions where Edwards and her band recorded a lot of the bed tracks at Caterbury studios. Edwards specifically mentions how Molzan really set the tone for being committed to her and helping her and her songs get where they needed to go.

“Lyle helped me find something that was different in drums that I’ve never had before,” Edwards explains. “The nice thing about Lyle is that he is very focused on the small details and that’s what I needed … I needed someone to be fixated on little high hat hits for example; little things suddenly became a part of the sound I wanted to work on. I didn’t want to write songs that were your typical structure of verse/chorus, verse/chorus, verse/chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus, outro.”

Another long-time compatriot from Canada’s capital – Bryson – also played an integral role, doing a lot of the collaborating and writing for the record from his Ottawa basement. Bryson’s friendship with Edwards, which he laughs, has always been “purely platonic,” goes back to before she even released her critically-acclaimed full-length debut Failer in 2003. Bryson says that it was inevitable that the songs on Voyageur would take the turn that they did.

“When big things happen in your life and big changes happen, it gets reflected,” he explains. “Sometimes with music, it’s nice to clean the slate and make things new again. She’s not a different person, but she was excited to try something new and have a fresh go at it. The new record is a reflection of new surroundings and the introduction of a fresh personality.”

Bryson, who, when we chat, is enjoying some downtime at home a few weeks before Christmas, before joining the rest of the band on tour later this spring, says Voyageur was the first time since her debut that the pair really worked together on a batch of songs. It was a slow process at times, he admits, but it also was a lot of fun; Edwards and her fellow co-creators meticulousness is reflected in the end result.

“She tried things many times, playing them live to hear how they sounded,” Bryson says. “Some worked and some didn’t have the excitement level she wanted. There were certain songs she recorded three of four times until it hit a nerve. There’s a genuine connection in these songs. Her other records are like that, but after three records of a certain style, she definitely cleaned the slate with this one.”

As mentioned, the bulk of Bryson’s contributions were recorded in his Ottawa basement on limited recording gear. This is the new world of musical collaboration. Edwards would send Bryson a song via e-mail and tell the multi-instrumentalist what she was looking to add, whether it was a vocal, guitar or keyboard part.

“I would send a whole bunch of stuff back and tell her to take what she wanted,” Bryson says. “The biggest example was ‘Sidecars’ where a lot of the keyboards and some of guitar happened where she wasn’t around to say whether she liked it or not and she ended up using a bunch of it.”

If Edwards choose not to use one of Bryson’s ideas, he didn’t take it personally. “I know how records work,” says the seasoned songwriter. “It’s like taking photographs. You take 100 and may only use three of them. If it’s a signature part and you really feel connected to it you can have a discussion, but otherwise if you are playing on someone else’s record, it’s their record … at the end of the day, it’s her deal. It’s not like I can throw a barrel of monkeys down the stairs and mic it and expect her to use it.”

Jokes aside for a moment, Bryson says the record has so many faces to it. Asked to pick a few favorites, he names “Change the Sheets,” due to the Wurlitzer loop that runs throughout, along with “Going to Hell” and “Chameleon/Comedian.” While the subject matter of many of the songs is heavy, the Ottawa musician says that it’s real-life stuff that most people should be able to relate to. “My joke is that music is not coal mining but there is still a lot of struggle in life.”

Getting back to Edwards and her life on the road, we conclude our chat talking about one of her favorite places in the world to play – Scandinavia.

“There is a weird connection between Canadian artists and Swedish artists,” she explains. “There is something about the songwriting culture, which I think has a lot to do with the geography of our countries … that plays a huge part in influencing songs and music.”

While Europe is a favorite stop in her global travels, Edwards admits that she needs to tour Canada more – she’s never even done a full cross-Canada tour; she hopes with Voyageur she’ll spend more time touring in her home and native land. With a trio of dates set for February – Montreal on the 7th, Hamilton on the 10th, and a homecoming show at the Phoenix Concert Theatre on February 11, this wish is already on its way to be granted. After the burn out, the break up, and the downtime, Edwards is exciting about hitting that white line yet again. Leaving her normal life behind for a while, taking a trip with Voyageur and her bandmates, and seeing where this new and exciting road will take her.

“It’s been a really hard test of everything we touched on before,” she concludes. “I feel optimistic about this record and it’s a nice way to start the year.”


“Don’t call it a comeback/I’ve been here for years,” rapped LL Cool J in his 1990 Grammy-winning hit, “Mama Said Knock You Out.” For Alfie Zappacosta, these classic hip-hop lyrics are apropos. The Canadian songwriter wants fans to know, unlike Elvis, he never left the building. And No Avoiding Clichés – his latest live CD/DVD, recorded at Edmonton’s Festival Place Theatre in Sherwood Park – is no comeback.

“I am still alive!” he jokes. “I’ve never stopped working; I’ve just flown a little bit under the radar.”

“As you get older, finding something that hasn’t been done or said before becomes more difficult.”

Even though he’s released five records on his own label (AZ Records) in the past seven years, with little radio play, many long-time fans wondered what happened to the award-winning songwriter. Part of this return to the spotlight is fueled by the artist’s renewed passion in his chosen career and his ability to do things independently.

Based in Edmonton for the past two decades, Zappacosta is ready to hit the road again to promote his new release and share 45 years of songs that, for one reason or another, never hit the mainstream like his earlier hits.

Flash back to the 1980s. Zappacosta was at the top of his game, at least commercially. He won a JUNO for Most Promising Male Vocalist of the Year, in 1984. In 1987, the TV show Danger Bay aired an episode written specifically for Zappacosta, titled “Rock Star.” That same year he also penned and sang “Overload,” which won an American Music Award, exclusively for the multi-platinum-selling soundtrack to Dirty Dancing, which spent 18 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200. His hit songs – staples on Canadian adult contemporary radio waves – included “Start Again,” “Passion,” “When I Fall in Love Again,” and “Nothing Can Stand in Your Way.”

While No Avoiding Clichés offers 12 cuts from his catalogue, if you see Zappacosta perform live, he’ll dust off many more tunes, some that even long-time fans may not know.

“This last record was done over a 45-year period of writing,” he says. “I chose only a handful of songs that give a pretty good cross-section of what I’ve been through, but there is so much more than that. I’m calling this project No Avoiding Clichés because as you get older, finding something that hasn’t been done or said before becomes more difficult.”

Why, as the songwriter enters his golden years, is he so re-energized about the music industry? “It’s been a lot of years of ‘I don’t care,’ to now ‘I want to do it,’” he explains. “I’m looking forward to it again. It’s not the age. It’s feeling like I have complete control over my music. Once upon a time there were so many people that would push you this way or that, and even when I liked to believe I had certain control, there often were a lot of people you had to make happy.”

As he hones his chops practicing and working to re-learn songs and remember long-forgotten lyrics to songs he hasn’t performed live in years, Zappacosta stresses this is no short-term comeback.

“I want to be busy for the next 20 years,” he concludes. “I’m around again… don’t think I’m not there. I’m bringing myself back into the limelight. Come see the old dog; he’s just fine!”

Zappacosta (1984); A-Z (1986); Quick! … Don’t Ask Any Questions (1990); Innocence Ballet (1995); Dark Sided Jewel (2000); Start Again (2004); Bonafide (2007); At the Church at Berkeley (2008); Blame it On Me (2010); Live at the Blue Frog Studios (2012); Once Upon a Time (2013); No Avoiding Clichés (2016)

This article originally published in SOCAN’s Words + Music.

ROB THOMAS: Climbing the Ranks

While his wife checks the fan message board on his website at their home in Westchester, NY, singer/songwriter Rob Thomas enjoys a little down time. The songwriter has just returned from walking the dog, and seeing his wife checking the message board has him joking that they know more about his canine friend than he does. The board has been particularly active since April 19, when Thomas released his solo debut, Something to Be, on Atlantic Records. While his fans have had no trouble accepting this transition-from Matchbox Twenty frontman to solo performer-Thomas admits that he’s still coming to terms with the fact that he’s no longer in a band.

Describing the album, he keeps speaking in the first-person plural. Luckily, his wife chirps in from the background and reminds him that it’s “his album,” so there’s no need to speak of “we.”

You would think that three Grammys and worldwide sales of more than 25 million units is motivation enough for the songsmith to win the battle of the bed each morning. Not so. Rather, it’s the magic of the creative process and the moment when a song is born that truly inspires him.

“You walk into a room and there’s nothing there…a big, silent, empty room,” Thomas says. “Then, there’s a good chance of leaving that room with a song that never existed before that maybe other people will be singing a couple of years down the road. That’s an amazing concept to me.

“I take it all the way back to the point that ‘Rock Around the Clock’ did not exist, and one day these writers went into a room and came out with this amazing song, and now it’s a piece of history,” he continues. “It’s the one part of all of this that no matter how you try to fuck it up, you can’t. It stays pure. No matter what happens to it later, no matter where it goes, no matter how people decide to sell records or not sell records, that part doesn’t get changed.”

Selling records was never a problem for Thomas with Matchbox Twenty, and it’s proving to be a non-issue with Something to Be. The first single, “Lonely No More,” flew up the charts upon release in March, and it was the No. 1 most added track at multiple formats long before its February 14 impact date. And, on April 27, Something to Be opened at No. 1 on The Billboard 200.

There’s no doubting that Thomas is a songwriter that makes an impact; the accolades speak for themselves. In June 2004, the Songwriters Hall of Fame presented him with their first ever “Starlight Award,” created to recognize someone in the early years of his or her career that is already making a lasting impact. In addition, he has earned 13 BMI Awards, including both Songwriter and Song of the Year. He was named Billboard’s Songwriter of the Year two years in a row.

“That can carry you a long way in your head,” he says of all these accolades. “It’s a lot easier to shove off a bad criticism that you read in a magazine if Bernie Taupin is a really big fan.”

While this is Thomas’ first full album of original music working without his band, he has previously had the opportunity to play and write with several of his personal fans, who just happen to be songwriting legends. “I’ve been really fortunate with Matchbox, so any outside writing has been based on the idea, ‘Can I learn a whole lot from this’ or ‘Does this sound like something that is going to be a lot of fun?’” he explains. “So, I’ve worked with people that I’m a big fan of in some way-everybody from Mick Jagger and Willie Nelson to people like Phil Vassar and Pat Green.”

Working with the septuagenarian songwriter Nelson was a definite high for Thomas, in more ways than one. “We spent two days together, and he just wound up doing three of my songs,” he reveals. “We sat down to write something together and we never actually wrote anything. We just really got high for two days and played each other songs.
“With Mick Jagger it was a different thing all together,” Thomas continues. “We spent two days together. It would be a couple of hours writing in the afternoon and then we would go out drinking. He was such an intense writer. I didn’t expect that out of him.”

“To see him grab a guitar and run into the other room and start just beating a melody out, and even more importantly, to see him doing it the same way that I do it…being really raw and not being afraid to make noises that don’t make any sense…seeing that as a young writer and seeing one of my idols doing that, that’s a nice sense that everything is right in the world and I’m doing things the way I should be doing them.”

Another valuable career lesson that Thomas recalls came from Carlos Santana several years ago, while the pair were collaborating on what would become the Grammy-winning single “Smooth.”

“When I met Carlos we [Matchbox Twenty] had just finished coming off the road for our first record and we had sold all these records, yet we still were very secure in the knowledge that we weren’t that much better of a band than we were when we started,” he says. “But, all of a sudden we were in this arena…first off, literally in an arena…but in the arena of all these other rock stars and selling all these records that we were all of a sudden supposed to be at this level and we weren’t. And, we were standing there with our dicks in our hands going ‘What do we do now? Is this it?’ because it didn’t feel like it.

“Working with Carlos, it seemed like it had this really serendipitous perfect timing for him to come along and be like, ‘Hey listen, it’s the fucking journey man…there is no destination,’” continues Thomas. “‘If you do all this and sell all these records, then all you have done is buy yourself a chance to be a better band-to buy yourself the chance to be better musicians, better songwriters, and work on that and realize that sooner or later if you have something that tanks, that’s fine. That just becomes part of your repertoire. Ten years down the road, that might be people’s favourite song…the one that didn’t work. It’s just a matter of doing this long enough that that could come to fruition.’”

With Something to Be, Thomas continues this musical journey, realizing there is no destination and hoping that one of the tracks just might become a fan’s favourite song today or a decade from now. While he still struggles with the fact that he’s not in Matchbox Twenty anymore-and he’s out there on his own (at least for a time)-it’s something the award-winning songwriter’s always had in the back of his mind.

“Everyone kept asking me ‘What’s the difference going to be? Why do a solo record? If you write these songs and you’re the front man, what do you have to say that you are not saying?’” says Thomas. “It’s a testament to Matchbox Twenty that there’s a lot [of speculation]. Because when we do something with Matchbox, it’s a full band effort, and every sound that we put on there is like the result of an argument between five people. So, going in and being responsible for it all yourself was the difference.”

As a songwriter, being responsible for the writing has never been a problem. It comes naturally for Thomas, so in that regard, penning songs for a Matchbox record or for this new solo venture was no different. “The writing part of it always feels like the easy part,” he says. “It seems like ‘This is what I do…this is the way I was born,’ so I write all the time anyway. I’m just lucky enough that I get to do it for a living or else I would just have a lot of songs that nobody’s heard.”

For Thomas, a song’s genesis usually begins on the guitar, even though he admits he’s a lot better piano player. “A lot of times I start on the guitar, but I just kind of get stuck,” he explains. “I know what chord I want to play, but I can’t play it. So then I switch to piano, and I’m not blocked by something simple like chord progressions. The only problem is that if you start on the piano, a lot of times it seems you tend to go a lot mellower because anything that you play on the piano-and try and rock-just sounds stupid. No matter what you do, it all just sounds like ‘Crocodile Rock.’”

At the end of the day, whether in a band, in collaboration with others, or by his lonesome, composing songs is really what drives Thomas to get out of bed in the morning.

“It’s the one thing that I wouldn’t want to quit,” he concludes. “I could probably quit everything else. At the end of the day, I get a bigger reward out of writing a great song than I do out of being a pop star. That’s something that I can see myself doing for the rest of my life.”

This article originally appeared in American Songwriter.


Jack Black as an inspiration to a young songwriter? An unusual mentor for sure. Then again, Francesco Yates isn’t your typical Canadian crafter of songs. He wrote his first one when he was only 11 years old, after watching the heartwarming 2003 Jack Black comedy School of Rock; he signed to Atlantic Records at 16; and his recently released debut self-titled EP features “Change the Channel,” a co-write with 10-time Grammy-winning producer Pharrell Williams, of “Happy” and The Voice fame. Did we mention Yates recently turned 20?

When we catch up with the fledgling singer-songwriter, he’s resting at The Oswego Hotel in Victoria, B.C., a couple of days after tearing up the red carpet, playing a 2015 American Music Awards pre-show concert with Alessia Cara, Shawn Mendes and Gabi, and later acting as one of the presenters at the gala. Asked how he’s doing, Yates simply says, “I’m maintaining.”

To understand how Yates maintains this laid-back persona, let’s first flash back nine years to that pre-pubescent epiphany when he penned his first composition.

“Next year, I plan to take over the world one little curl at a time.”

School of Rock is what ignited the whole movement I took towards music,” he recalls. “Jack Black inspired me a lot, and so did many of my music teachers in school, who’ve taught me more than just music. I’ve had the great privilege of working with a lot of great people, many of whom symbolized what Jack Black was trying to teach the kids in that movie.”

And working with Pharrell? “He is the Sensei… The Minister of The Funk,” Yates says. “He was instrumental in shifting the way I thought, and shifting the way I see music. You learn a lot from him. I was just trying to soak up as much as I could during those sessions.”

What specific lessons did Pharrell teach Yates? “He taught me to not be as afraid,” he says. “He’s very good at taking things that don’t seem like they work with pop music and putting them into pop music. With him and me, it was the electric guitar. He encouraged me to be that guy on the guitar, which I always was in my basement, but wasn’t otherwise. He taught me to put that in the forefront. I didn’t know where to position it… It was nice of him to impart his wisdom.”

Yates signed to Atlantic Records as a writer at 16, but only just released his first EP this past fall – a six-song collection, marked by “Better to be Loved,” for which he created a stunning performance at the 2015 SOCAN Awards (see the video below); the catchy single “Call Me”; and the Pharrell-produced “Change the Channel.” What took so long? Yates says he needed to find himself first before putting his songs out to the world.

“I’m figuring that out every day, as all of us are,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve found myself so much, but what I will say is that EP has a lot of diverse stuff on it. I just wanted to show all of the things that I can do. It was more a showcase, if you can call it that, rather than a complete, painted picture.

“An album is a consistent and painted picture, as well as the singles that are on it,” he adds. “The EP is supposed to be a demonstration… like a sketch, just touching on some of the things.”

When can we expect the completed canvas? In 2016, for sure, according to Yates. “As far as an art motif goes, I’ll have a blank canvas and will see the image more clearly,” he concludes. “Next year, I plan to take over the world one little curl at a time.”

Watch a red carpet video interview from the 2015 SOCAN Awards:

Track Record

CBC included Yates on a list of their Top 25 Canadian Songwriters under the age of 25
Yates was featured on the huge Robin Schulz hit, “Sugar”
He won the Heatseeker award at the 2015 Canadian Radio Music Awards for his single “Better To Be Loved”
Discography: Francesco Yates (EP, 2015)
SOCAN member since 2013
Visit www.francescoyates.com

Colin Linden’s Rich in Love

Blues is in Colin Linden’s blood. His introduction to blues culture, and the turning point in his life, was when a friend of his brother’s turned him on to Howlin’ Wolf (a.k.a. Chester Burnett).

Shortly thereafter, in November 1971, an 11-year-old Linden met the blues legend before his Saturday matinée gig at Toronto’s Colonial Tavern. The pair chatted for hours and became fast friends. On Rich in Love, the guitarist/producer’s first solo record in six years, the Renaissance man collaborates with his musical mates and some industry heavyweights, and finds inspiration from dearly departed friends. The result: a dozen deep cuts that ooze with buckets of soul, and lure you in to listen. In each well-crafted note, you can hear whispers of Howlin’ Wolf — and the many other blues icons — who’ve shaped Linden’s musical journey.

“It never loses its thrill,” says Linden, in reference to putting out a solo recording. “It doesn’t feel that different from when I was 20. Interestingly enough, I didn’t even know it would feel that way until it came out.”

“I’m just happy to have some songs that feel honest and real.”

Rich in Love is a collaborative effort. “It’s really a story about Johnny [Dymond], Gary [Craig], and me,” Linden says. “The three of us playing together and the decades of friendship and music that we share.”

Bassist Dymond and drummer Craig have shared the limelight with Linden for so long that there is a simpatico and mutual musical understanding whenever the trio convenes. Rich in Love was mostly recorded in Linden’s Nashville home studio. Legendary blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite and keyboardist Reese Wynans (Stevie Ray Vaughan), also lent their talents. And, even though he passed away in 2007, Linden says, “The spirit of [keyboardist] Richard Bell looms large on the record.”

When I catch up with the guitarist/producer, he’s in Music City, driving to the set of the hit TV drama Nashville – currently in production for Season Four, airing this fall on ABC. Linden is the show’s music supervisor, plays 75 per cent of the guitar you hear on the show, and teaches all the actors their singing and playing parts.

The last few years have been a prolific period for the 55-year-old. Linden has toured as a guitarist with Bob Dylan, performed at The White House, played on Rhiannon Giddens’ Tomorrow Is My Turn, and released another Blackie & The Rodeo Kings record (South). As if that wasn’t enough, he’s also produced records for many other musicians, including the latest (Telling Time) from up-and-coming SOCAN member Lucas Chaisson. Somehow, in between, the musician carved out time to write songs for and record Rich in Love.

Most of the songs came together over a couple of years. “It started off with Johnny, Gary and I setting up in a little room in my house,” Linden recalls. “Blackie & the Rodeo Kings had just finished playing at The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco and the pair came back with me to Nashville afterwards. We said, ‘Let’s just take a few days and see what’s there.’”

“I had to go off to a shoot for the TV show [Nashville],” he continues. “When I came home three hours later, the couch had been moved out of the studio and in its place was a set of drums. Janis [Linden’s wife] and Johnny had put up a set of curtains and Gary had set up a bunch of cushions from the couch to make the room sound a certain way… it was all there; that’s how we started. We recorded the first two or three songs as a sort of reconnaissance recording. We figured the worst that could happen is these would be demos, but they ended up being the first couple of songs we cut for the record.”

A number of songs on Rich in Love were inspired by the words of friends now gone but not forgotten. For example, “No More Cheap Wine” has a whole lot of the late musician and novelist Paul Quarrington in it, says Linden: “When Paul was diagnosed with Stage Four lung cancer, the first thing he said was, ‘OK, no more cheap wine!’ I thought that was a great way of dealing with it and looking at the limitations your life may have. It was a great inspiration.”

Despite all his success, Linden remains ever humble. “I get bashful when I talk about songwriting,” he says, “because when you’re playing guitar and ‘Desolation Row’ is coming out of the monitor in front of you, by the guy who wrote it [Bob Dylan], it makes you reconsider how high your bar is as a songwriter. I’m just happy to have some songs that feel honest and real.”

Publisher: warner Chappell Music Canada Ltd.
Selected Discography: Rich in Love (2015); Still Live (2012); From the Water (2009); Big Mouth (2003); Southern Jumbo (2005); South at Eight North at Nine (1993); The Immortals (1986)
SOCAN member since 1992
Visit http://www.colinlinden.com

Track Record

“Delia Come For Me,” from the new record, was partially inspired by the 2011 execution in Georgia of Troy Davis for murder; a case that reminded Linden of the old country-blues murder ballad, “Delia.”
Linden played on Gregg Allman’s Grammy-nominated Low Country Blues;
He’s an eight-time JUNO award winner.

This article was originally published in SOCAN’s Words + Music here.

The Strumbellas: “Spirits” Rising

“I’ll be a dreamer till the day I die,” warbles Simon Ward, lead singer and principal Strumbellas’ songwriter on their current singalong hit, “Spirits.” The catchy first single off their fourth, forthcoming release Hope has been played more than three million times on Spotify, and is in regular rotation on Canadian radio.

There are days when the band’s rapid rise into the broader consciousness of music fans feels like a dream to Ward. In the past few months, The Strumbellas signed with chic indie label Glassnote Records (Phoenix, Mumford & Sons); opened a string of cross-Canada shows for Blue Rodeo; made their U.S. network television debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in Los Angeles; and shared a pre-Grammy party bill there with Leon Bridges. Ward says he was a bit nervous meeting Kimmel, but the couple of days in Hollywood were surreal. Amid these dream-like experiences, the highlight was meeting one of his musical idols: Alex Ebert from Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.

When Ward connects with Words & Music, The Strumbellas are following the white line South — adding more miles to their musical journey, gaining new fans at each stop for their catchy roots-rock. Ward and his five bandmates are cramped in their tour van leaving New York City, rolling down the Interstate to Georgia. A pit stop in Nashville follows before the band arrives in Austin to play a bunch of showcases at SXSW 2016, receive a SOCAN No. 1 Song Award for “Spirits,” and eat plenty of Texas barbecue – one of their favourite dining experiences.

Formed in 2008, The Strumbellas are: Ward, David Ritter, Jon Hembrey, Izzy Ritchie, Darryl James, and Jeremy Drury. Asked how the band initially came up with the name, Ward says we’ll be disappointed with the story. “Led Zeppelin was already taken!” he laughs. “Seriously, I thought of The Umbrellas first and it didn’t sound right, so then I said, how about Strumbellas? Everyone else in the band thought it was okay, but nobody loved it. We’ve thought about changing it a few times, but it’s starting to grow on us.”

“Spirits” is definitely growing on fans. The video is closing in on a million streams. When you hear The Strumbellas in concert, there’s not a soul in the audience that’s not singing along to this infectious song and its catchy chorus refrain: “I’ve got guns in my head and they won’t go/Spirits in my head and they won’t go.” The composition speaks of the power of hope: finding light in the darkness that imprisons our thoughts during tough times. Melodies and words intermingle to provide a ray of light that helps extinguish the mental anguish.

“I was going through a rough patch when I wrote that song,” Ward explains. “We were on the road and I was feeling down and out. I missed my family. The metaphor of guns in my head symbolized my bad thoughts, but the thing about being down is that it always will get better in the end; that’s where hope comes in in the song.”

The spark for “Spirits” came to Ward while waiting backstage before a show in North Carolina. With only his trusty Gibson J45 acoustic guitar as his guide, he came up with the melody. “I thought it was cool,” he recalls. “Later, I shared it with the rest of the band. They liked it; everyone thought it was groovy.”

“Spirits” is the lead single off Hope, which drops in April. The 11-song collection was recorded at John Dinsmore’s Lincoln County Social Club in Toronto, with producer Dave Schiffman (Weezer, HAIM, Sky Ferreira). There were three studio sessions, all in the first half of 2015. The recording was organic and spontaneous, and many of the tunes came fast. The songs are a mix of the acoustically-inclined, rootsy, alt-country tunes that longtime fans have come to expect, along with a bit of a bigger, bolder sound that leans towards the pop side, with more experimentation in the instrumentation.

“These ideas pop into my head and I put them down on my voice memo app on my phone.” — Simon Ward of The Strumbellas.

“We made two records that were full acoustic, where we were all playing our instruments,” Ward says. “We looked at this recording as more of a collective effort. We wanted to make simpler songs. A lot of the Strumbellas’ sound was there, but we also added a lot of pop elements and lots of synthesizer. We wrote the record without our instruments and the bulk of it was done in the studio.”

For Ward, song ideas always begin with a melody. “These ideas pop into my head and I put them down on my voice memo app on my phone,” he says. “I get a collection going… that’s how it always starts, with that little hook. Then, I listen to these fragments and build the songs from there before sharing them with the rest of the band. Sometimes I worry that one day these ideas will dry out and stop, but luckily for now they haven’t.”

The song idea on Hope that Ward is proudest of as a songwriter is “We Don’t Know.” Its upbeat, harmony-heavy melody is backed by lyrics that echo the album’s theme of losing your way, then finding your way back home – through such lines as “I know my darkness will never go away,” and “It’s hard when you’re living and you don’t feel much.”

“There’s lots of synth in that one, and I’m super-excited about it,” says Ward. “I took my songwriting in a new direction. I like to experiment with different sounds and strategies, and took a bit of a jump as a writer on that one.”

The Strumbellas (2009); My Father & The Hunter (2012); We Still Move on Dance Floors (2013); Hope (2016)

Track Record

SOCAN Award in 2015 for Folk/Roots Music
Won a JUNO in 2014 for Roots & Traditional Group of the Year
We Still Move on Dance Floors won a Sirius XM Indie Music Award
We Still Move on Dance Floors was also long-listed for the Polaris Prize

This article was published in SOCAN’s Words + Music March 22, 2016.

Steve Earle: Chasing the Blues From Texas to Tennessee to NYC


From rabble-rouser to Shakespeare scholar, hard rocker to bluegrass brother, Steve Earle’s resume also includes self-taught songwriter, award-winning musician, actor (on such critically acclaimed shows as The Wire and Treme), author, broadcaster, and voracious reader. Not bad for an eighth-grade dropout.

Of course, Earle today is a far cry from that Lone Star State kid of yesteryear. His collection of short stories, Doghouse Roses, was published in June 2002; his novel, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, was published in the spring of 2011; and he’s busy working on his memoir (I Can’t Remember If We Said Goodbye) as we speak. But that’s just the span of Earle’s literary career, His 1986 debut album, Guitar Town, had an 8-track among its release formats. That alone speaks to his longevity in an often fickle industry. In the past three decades, he’s lived a fuller life than most. He did a 60-day stint in prison for drug and weapons possession and he’s been divorced seven times (his latest split, from singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, came last year). Somehow he’s managed to come out the other side alive.

Inside Earle’s heart and mind are demons galore; his experiences as an addict and the living blues of a hardcore troubadour life still find their way into his storied songs. Where once he enjoyed carousing and a carefree, often reckless, self-destructive existence, he now prefers silence, solitude, routine, and structure. The booze and drugs have long since been replaced by a steady diet of books and songs. The blues bleed one’s troubles and tribulations; they are etched into the grooves of the vinyl, one tragicomedy at a time. So, a blues record is a perfect soundtrack to Earle’s life in music.

Thirty years into his career, Earle, 60, comes full circle on his latest album, the bluesy Terraplane, released last month by New West. The follow-up to 2013’s The Low Highway, it features Earle’s longtime band The Dukes, comprised of Kelly Looney, Will Rigby, Chris Masterson, and Eleanor Whitmore (the latter two have their own band, The Mastersons). R.S. Field (Buddy Guy, John Mayall) produced the record, and it was engineered by Earle’s longtime production partner Ray Kennedy. The disc was recorded at House of Blues Studio D in Nashville.

With this record, Earle returns to the music that first tugged at his soul. Some fans were surprised when the three-time Grammy winner known for his politically charged folk and alt-country songs released this bluesy offering for his 16th studio album. For Earle, however, it was a natural progression on his musical journey, a return to his Texas roots and early influences. After all, the blues are really just another form of folk music.

In the liner notes to Terraplane, Earle writes: “… the blues are anything but superficial. In fact, they run so deep and dark and close to the bone that folks walk around everyday with the blues as though it were perfectly natural for a human being to go on living with a broken heart (apologies to Tony Kushner). For my part, I’ve only ever believed two things about the blues: one, that they are very democratic, the commonest of human experience, perhaps that only thing that we all truly share and two, that one day, when it was time, I would make this record.”

“It’s easy to get your head around,” Earle explains over the phone, when I ask him about artists’ attraction to the blues. “It sounds simple, but it’s not easy to play. And, it becomes infectious. There is something about the blues that is universal. It’s like iambic pentameter, it always works.”

Earle’s son Justin Townes Earle, who released his own blues album, Absent Fathers, this year, explains the genre’s importance in even more detail: “Out of all the music that was made in the Southeastern United States, which is 90 percent of American music, it was the most influential,” he says. “It influenced so many types of music. You wouldn’t have rock and roll without the blues, you wouldn’t have Hank Williams without the blues … he didn’t invent the 12-bar blues, but he played it all the goddamn time. You wouldn’t have jazz without the blues. It’s the number-one most vital part of our heritage here in America, as far as our musical heritage is concerned.”

Named after the late, great songwriter Townes Van Zandt, whom his father befriended and saw as an early mentor, Justin only coincidentally returned to the blues at the same time as his pops. “It was a complete coincidence … 100 percent,” says the younger Earle. “We talk, but we often miss things. Sometimes we only really connect every few months because we are both working our asses off, but we then skip big parts of our lives [that we forget] to tell each other.

“I don’t think my father and I would necessarily notice that we were writing a blues record [at the same time] because I didn’t necessarily set out to write a blues record,” he continues. “I was trying to return to something more simple, along the lines of Yuma. There is a real thing where Townes [said,] ‘there is blues even in ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.’ It’s just a natural thing to come out of us. I think the last couple of years my dad has been experimenting a lot. I’m definitely glad he has fallen back into what he does best.”

While releasing a blues record at the same time was a fluke, what’s not random is that the same Texas blues legends who influenced the elder Earle are the ones who were a part of Justin’s early education.

“My father introduced me to Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, and when I started playing music originally it was as a blues player,” he says. “I’m just going back to where I started … back to the roots of me being a musician.”

Where father and son differ, the younger Earle says, is in the sound he was most interested in capturing on Absent Fathers, as opposed to what Steve did on Terraplane. “There will always be this thing where I go for the sweeter, smoother side, where [my dad] wants to get as dirty as he can,” he explains. “He will call me and say, ‘listen to this tone I got, isn’t it insane?’ We have our similarities for sure, but we usually go in different directions when it comes to the end result.”

Despite their differences, both musical and personal, the younger Earle characterizes the current father-son relationship as pretty good. “We haven’t had a bad relationship since I was a teenager,” he says. “Anybody who claims they are at peace with everything that happened to them when they were a child is full of shit! Every parent fucks their kid up in some way, a little bit, that’s just the way it is. We will have very heated battles because we are both very passionate people and we will argue about music all day.” That said, Justin left open the possibility for a future collaboration between the talented songwriters. “Maybe,” he says simply. But, “it would be a battle.”

Even though the pair may not join forces in the studio anytime soon, the son always carries with him his father’s simple songwriting advice. It’s impossible, he says, to be the son of a musician and not be influenced by your father.

“Any songwriter who is a kid of a songwriter that says otherwise is full of shit. How is that possible? My father told me some very important things. I didn’t listen to him early on, especially because he was a reasonably new person in my life. But I’ve always remembered a couple of things he told me about writing songs right before I left home on my own when I was about 15. He told me, ‘Never write about anything that you don’t know.’ That’s a very simple thing to say, and, [when] you say it to people, they think, ‘What’s the big deal?’, but that has meaning. If you don’t understand that, then don’t write songs.”

Keep On Movin’ On
Speaking of sticking to what you know, Steve Earle turned to a stereotypical folk tradition for writing the songs of Terraplane. Riding the rails while backpacking through Europe alone with just a guitar, ukulele, and a notebook inspired the bulk of the disc’s tunes. “Trains have a beat to them,” Earle says to explain why so much music in so many genres has been inspired by – or written on – locomotives. “Trains have all kinds of rhythms and none of them are wrong,” he says. “You can write anything on a train.” This solo journey harkens to the old hobo tradition espoused by songwriting greats like Woody Guthrie. Continuing with the transportation theme, a terraplane is a Hudson automobile that was made in the 1930s, famous for being affordable and fast. Gangsters liked them. And, of course, there’s a Robert Johnson song called “Terraplane Blues.” While this famous Johnson song didn’t end up on Terraplane, the Dukes recorded a version of it that will be released as a split single for Record Store Day 2015 with Earle’s version on one side and Johnson’s on the other. “It looks like a 78, but plays like a 45,” says Earle.

Earle and I connect near the tail end of two weeks of solid press interviews that included stops on all the late-night talk shows. I can hear the fatigue in his voice. He sighs as his management connects the call. Earle may be weary, but he’s wiser than most. The beard he sports these days makes him look like a sage. Gandalf the Grey, if you will. A new record, a memoir in the works, and plans for some work on Broadway … oh, and don’t forget the most important job to him these days: being a father to his 5-year-old son, John Henry. Asked about trying to balance the life as a touring musician with being a father who is present in his son’s life, Earle says it’s always been hard. “It bothers me more now, but the balance is easier. I still have to go on the road and it’s a drag.” Earle regrets not being there as much for his grown son, Justin, whose Absent Fathers speaks to this parental void. Despite such an arduous life journey, on the verge of his seventh decade, Earle shows no signs of slowing down.

Flash back to 1986, when this life in songs began. Like a Texas tornado, Earle took the Nashville establishment by storm with his rockabilly full-length debut, Guitar Town. The disc topped Billboard’s country album charts, and the title song reached No. 7 on the country singles charts. Earle was also nominated for two 1987 Grammy Awards for the release: Best Male Country Vocalist and Best Country Song, for the title track. No Depression co-founder Peter Blackstock peeled back the layers that made up this young Earle a decade later, in Issue 3 from 1996, in a piece titled “Can’t Keep a Good Man Down.” Nearly two decades since Earle graced the cover of ND in print, he keeps showing music critics and fans alike you still can’t muzzle his muse. Never one to shy away from spouting opinions and waxing political, Terraplane finds Earle leaning more on the personal side of life. “This is more personal because there is nothing overtly political on there,” says Earle, “so I’m concentrating more on that stuff. … I had a lot going on in my personal life.” When I prompt him for more on the matter, on whether the blues matched his mood, he says simply: “That’s probably true.”

Growing up in Houston, Earle was exposed to the pair of blues legends Justin cited: Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins. “I saw them both in the same room at the same time several times,” the elder Earle recalls. “That’s always been more a part of what I do … the acoustic side, because (of) Lightnin’s acoustic phase and Mance always played acoustic, but the electric stuff was a little more intimidating.”

While the electric blues was more foreign to a teenaged Earle, it still found its way into his musical education. He saw Freddy King and ZZ Top a lot. And, when he was 13, he was in a blues band. “We played Canned Heat and Paul Butterfield songs, along with Muddy Waters, since Electric Mud was just out,” Earle says. “Muddy Waters was just being introduced to a largely white, largely hippie audience and the blues became a part of that renaissance in roots music that became the mainstream of the music business for a moment.”

Enough has been written about the influence and mentorship of fellow Texan songwriting legends Van Zandt and Guy Clark on Earle’s education. You might think they are not related to the blues, but again, that’s not the case. Clark is how Earle got to see Lipscomb; the musicians spent a lot of time together at the bluesman’s house in Navasota. And Van Zandt knew Hopkins well and played his style of guitar better than anyone Earle has ever seen.

Besides the blues, the teenaged Earle listened to a steady diet of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. “I didn’t have an electric guitar when I was a kid, but I was listening to Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and all that stuff, too,” Earle explains. “My guitar playing sounded more like some of the guitar on The Kinks’ records, some of the early Beatles and Stones records, as well as Bob Dylan.”

It’s hard to find a songwriter worth their salt that doesn’t reference Dylan as a touchstone. Even though Earle’s formal education ended before he entered high school, he was lucky enough to have a couple of teachers that were music lovers and left lasting impacts. “I had a drama teacher in high school that turned me on to Dylan records and gave me a copy of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” he says. “I had missed that stuff since I was only seven years old when it came out. The first Dylan record I really paid attention to on my own was Highway 61. By 10, my life was pretty much all about music, so from there I backtracked to other seminal records.”

A biology teacher who played in a local country band was also an early influence on Earle’s evolution as a songwriter by giving him the gift of books. Today, Earle is a voracious reader who sees books as an important part of his songwriting process. What is he reading?

“Pretty much everything I can get my hands on,” he says. “I read way more nonfiction than fiction these days just because I always feel guilty about not learning as much as I can since I have a Grade 8 education. I read some things over and over again. Lord of the Rings for years. Now I tend to read the Harry Potter books over and over again,” he laughs. “Other stuff I read more than once. I read Shakespeare constantly. I probably reread a Shakespeare play at least once a year. My favorites are Hamlet – it’s the ultimate tragedy of that age. As far as comedies go, probably Much Ado About Nothing. They did Shakespeare in the Park in Nashville a couple of years ago and someone was trying to be a snob about it and say, ‘it’s not that good,’ and I was like, ‘It’s fucking Shakespeare and it’s in the park!’ ”

Shakespeare’s influence is seen directly on Terraplane in the song, “The Tennessee Kid,” which masterfully blends The Bard with the blues. “It’s just a retelling of the crossroads legend,” Earle says. “Any blues record by me is going to be about Robert Johnson more than anyone else, as he’s definitely the greatest songwriter of the genre. He basically wrote all of the songs that the genre is based on.” To pull Shakespeare into it, he adds: “[That one is] in iambic pentameter.”

In preparation for making Terraplane, Earle also dug back into his personal treasure chest of old recordings. “There were three kinds of stuff we had in mind when we were recording and mixing this record. One, the Chess Records, especially Howlin’ Wolf. Besides that, Canned Heat, and the first two ZZ Top records.”

‘Fearless and Quick’: The Making of Terraplane
Chris Masterson, along with his wife Eleanor Whitmore, has been in Earle’s backing band, The Dukes, since 2010. Masterson’s been friends with Earle for 14 years; he also grew up in The Lone Star State and the blues runs deep in his blood.

“My dad had country and western records, but we would go see all these blues guys,” Masterson says. “When I started to really appreciate music, it all really starts there. Even though I’ve gone on and done different things, my playing has always been rooted in that.

“I met Johnny Winter when I was 8 years old,” Masterson recalls. “My parents would take me out to singer-songwriter gigs, blues gigs, and folk gigs. Growing up in Houston, you are immersed in that. There were clubs that have been around for decades. I would see guys like Albert Collins play and Joe ‘Guitar’ Hughes play … the blues was all around and inescapable. My dad would take me to all these gigs and eventually I got to sit in with some of these people in my early teens.”

Masterson says these legendary musicians welcomed him and were happy to pass on some tips. “I would go to blues jams in the Fourth Ward and I was always welcomed on people’s stages,” he says. “It was an amazing way to learn. I was a strange kid, though, because I heard blues/rock – Stevie Vaughan or something – and then also started digging back and found Albert King and Freddy King. Later, I loved all the Charlie Christian records and even Pee Wee Crayton.”

Combine the fact that the guitarist/songwriter learned from some of the same blues masters as Earle with the tightness of The Dukes and it’s no surprise the songs on Terraplane came together quickly – it was recorded in just six days. Some of the songs were written over the course of a year, but two-thirds of it were written in a couple of months. The mixing was on top of that, but Earle doesn’t stay around for that anymore, leaving it in the capable hands of Ray Kennedy. A couple of things were kind of hammered out on sound checks at the end of the last tour such as the Texas shuffle that opens the disc, “Baby Baby Baby (Baby).” “When Steve started playing these tunes, I knew exactly what to do,” Masterson says. “When we first started going over these tunes in sound check, it took shape really quick.”

Masterson has already made several records with Earle and says that, with each subsequent record, he becomes more and more impressed with the bandleader’s efficiency. “He is always fearless and quick in the studio,” Masterson says. “That leads to really good art. He is also very decisive. He hears a thing he likes and we move on … no questions asked. I think this record was even faster than six days, as the last day he was just finishing up the duet with Eleanor. We already had everything else recorded and even recorded another song for another record down the road.”

Masterson says he’s learned a lot about record-making from spending time with Earle. “A lot of times when you go to make a record you have a big pile of songs together. Some things work better than others, and you decide to go with this song versus another song,” he explains. “Steve comes in with the 10 or 11 songs that are going to be the record. It goes to show how much he puts into it on the front end. … The last record we recorded in sequence. It’s a complete vision … a complete work before the record button is even hit. That is Steve. As a writer, to come in with what you want is amazing. I guess none of us get to see his cutting room floor, but it’s still very powerful to see it go down like that. …”

When and Where the Muse Hits
Earle’s journey to the blues has been a spiritual one, and the path has been formed by the roads he’s taken and the places he’s lived. It’s a well-worn highway with many highs and lows that eventually led him to New York City.

“I went from Texas to Tennessee when I was 19 and I stayed there 33 years, but I traveled to many other places from there,” he says. “I also spent a lot of time in Canada. I always loved New York and for a lot of reasons. Then, 10 years ago I felt like I needed another place to hang my hat and I came here; it’s felt more like home than anywhere else I’ve lived.” I ask whether he ever gets lost in the megalopolis. “People get lost, I guess, but it’s like the cave and the sleeping sharks, the oxygen comes to you,” he explains. “You can be still here and the whole world will still come to you.”

According to Earle, this stimulus is crucial to life as a songwriter. “There is always input. If there is no input, there’s no output.”

Speaking of output, this summer, Earle returns for a second year of his Camp Copperhead in upstate New York to teach aspiring songwriters his craft. The four-day immersion songwriting camp debuted last summer and immediately sold out. (At the time of this posting, there were still spots available for Camp Copperhead 2015, slated for July 20-24.)

“I teach songwriting the way that I do it,” Earle says. “I can’t make anybody a songwriter, but I can show you what I do and why. It’s about how I write and also about input. We do many exercises. We write haiku and we read and listen to Shakespeare. I wrote ‘You’re the Best Lover That I’ve Ever Had’ [which appears on Terraplane] at Camp Copperhead last year. Everybody saw it every day, since I wrote it on the chalkboard, so they could see what the process is like.”

One wonders whether, as he’s aged and matured, Earle’s approach to songwriting has changed. “The writing process changes all the time,” he explains. “I’ve learned not to be married to any particular routine or process. Trust in whatever it takes. The one thing is that as you get older, you get busier. I now have a 5-year-old, so I can’t say, ‘Oh, I write in the morning,’ as I don’t always have that luxury. I write when I have the time. When the muse hits these days, I use my phone to record the idea.”

Of course, what matters more than how the songs come to him is the fact that they continue to come. So far into his career as a songwriter, Earle has tackled just about everything from folk to bluegrass to country, and his ability to nail the blues is evident on Terraplane. It may seem like a new destination, but Earle’s journey to the blues was more like a journey home. Though he’s confident in his craft and is careful to clarify that the blues has “always been a part of what I do,” he admits, as a songwriter from Texas, it was daunting to consider making a blues record. “I know Jimmie Vaughan,” he explains, “I knew Stevie Ray Vaughan, and I know Kim Wilson. Outside of Texas, I know Charlie Musselwhite, for that matter … and I’m going to run into these guys. The bar is high, is what it boils down to. They will have to decide for themselves what they think of my record, but I’m pretty proud of it.”

In Conversation with Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor

Me and Ketch
Ketch Secor is cool and collected when we are introduced. This is surprising since our interview takes place shortly after he led his band Old Crow Medicine Show in a scorching 30-minute set at Farm Aid 30. He wielded the fiddle with the skill of a champion fencer.

The Grammy-winning musician and I meet backstage. Settling in next to one another on a couch, across from the Imagine Dragons’ trailer, Secor is sporting Ray Bans and is diressed in a black Farm Aid t-shirt, jean jacket, and faded jeans. The sweat is still apparent on his forehead. He is mellow. He feels humbled that Willie Nelson included his band in the day’s festivities. We chat about “the archangel Gabriel,” a.k.a. Nelson, how it felt for Secor playing his first Farm Aid, the kinship he feels with fellow musicians at the annual benefit to support family farmers, and Old Crow Medicine Show’s journey from sidewalk buskers to Grand Ole Opry members.

On the day’s set …

We had a ball. It’s really cool being at Farm Aid. I really enjoyed putting it out there. They only give you 30 minutes, so you gotta pack it in. That guy, David Amram, he’s in On the Road, he introduced Bob Dylan to Allan Ginsberg, he was the understudy to Leonard Bernstein … he’s also so old that he calls Willie Nelson junior! Really a treat to make a new friend and share some music on the stage with him. It was our first time playing Farm Aid.

How did it come about?

Willie asked us and we were pleased to comply. Heck, I’ll go anywhere Willie asks us to go! I’d go to Waterloo. [Waterloo, Ontario, Canada is the town, west of Toronto, from where I hail.]

On Steve Goodman’s influence and singing “City of New Orleans” at Farm Aid 30 …

Anytime that a musician’s life is cut short like that it makes his body of work that much more important. There is something about singing a song that evokes more than just the music. Steve [Goodman] is from Chicago. Steve is the Chicago folk scene of the late 1970s. It is a great opportunity to evoke him here, plus we had Mickey [Raphael]. Anytime you get that guy … Willie Nelson has recorded a version and I first heard Arlo Guthrie’s version – didn’t hear Steve’s until much later – to get Mickey on that is so cool. We worked it out towards the end of the Willie Nelson tour we were on last month, working on “City of New Orleans.” David Amram was not rehearsed, however; Mickey introduced us backstage.

What’s it like touring with Willie Nelson?

It’s kind of like standing on the stage next to the angel Gabriel. There is a deep spirituality that radiates out of him, out of his guitar, and out of him. Everything that is Willie Nelson has this spirit to it. I just want to bask in the light of this.

Looking back 15 years ago, is it hard to imagine how far you’ve come as a band, from playing the Grand Ole Opry to winning a Grammy for your last record and sharing the stage and touring with the legendary Nelson?

15 years ago I was standing outside of Willie Nelson’s bus, waiting for him to get off, to come say hello to the handful of fans that were there. I was probably higher than he was. I had my CD in my hand to give to him. It was our first record. He said he would listen to it. We got our picture made and we both had turquoise stones in our hats.

So it was fate then?

I had a feeling that I would see him again.

On Remedy (2014), winning a Grammy, and what’s next for Old Crow Medicine Show?

We are starting to write some new tunes and have just been thinking about Farm Aid for the last few days and here it is almost half-way over. It is such a particular thing. It’s like being invited to this family reunion and then you realize that you are related. You look around and you see your chin, and your eyes, and you know that you are kin.

So you feel a real kinship with not just the other artists, but the family farmers you’ve met today?

I feel a kinship with everybody here. I was a kid in 1985 [the year Farm Aid started] and it was something that my mom had me pay attention to. ‘They are doing something in Champagne, Illinois Ketch,’ she said. My mom voted for Walter Mondale the year before, so I knew that that made her different than anybody else. I didn’t know what was different about her, but she didn’t vote for Reagan.

Farm Aid Board Member Neil [Young] is very vocal about the family farmer issues; for him, part of the solution begins with pushing back against corporate America. What are your feelings on the Farm Aid cause and possible solutions? You said on stage, ‘Here we are Year 30, maybe we will solve this in Year 31?’ There has been progress, right?

I don’t know. There has been change, but is there ever really progress? Are those one in the same? Beats me. I also believe like Neil Young that a corporate hytocricy runs the show. It’s not true democracy. But, I don’t feel as a fiddle player that it’s my place to deal with those issues. I’m much more interested in making change on a community level. Talking to farmers here. I met this guy today on stage, Ben Burkett. Ben is a farmer from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I asked him, ‘Have you read E.O. Wilson’s book, The Longleaf Pine, and he said, ‘Yes Sir and I’ve just plowed up 40 acres to do something about it.’

I come from the place that just might have the chance to save agriculture in North America. I wouldn’t ask Nebraska to lead the pack or Kansas or the Dakotas wherever the black soil is. Why shouldn’t they grow wheat for the factories? Why shouldn’t they grow wheat for the foreign markets? I live in the fertile American South and this is the place that can grow food. My state could grow food instead of California – you can grow food all year along in Tennessee, but we don’t. We grow corn like everywhere else. We grow whatever the market says is the thing to grow because of subsidies. I’m interested in helping to plow a new row in my home state.

For the rest of the day, I plan to enjoy the music, hang out, do some more press and share some fellowship with my fellow musicians. There’s Holly Williams [Secor points to the songwriter who brushes by us]. We talked about her grandfather, she’s great, she’s got a little baby. We were just talking about her grandfather’s museum in Montgomery, Alabama, where we just played. It’s a great opportunity to visit with other artists. We are all giving our time here. We are giving up our weekend to come together because we believe in Willie Nelson. Willie is the reason. We are all here because of our love and our respect for Willie Nelson. He is the great teacher. He taught us all, from Red Headed Stranger on down, what American songs can be about. You know, in all of them, they are about us.

Do you have a favorite Willie song?

“Still Is Still Moving to Me.” I would like to see that one turned into a flowchart. I would like to see the fractal version of “Still Is Still Moving to Me.”

Are you on the road again after Farm Aid?

We will play the Opry this fall, but touring is a little patchy at this time of year. We did our thing, it was great and fruitful. They call this, ‘laying by time.’ The reason that school starts so early in the south is because you had to hoe and chop because if you didn’t the cotton wouldn’t grow. We go to school August 8. It’s ridiculous. It’s 105 degrees out and kids wait for the school bus. These kids haven’t been in a field in three generations and these kids won’t go into a field and that field has a coming soon sign depicting a gas station with dozens of pumps and a grocery store with 6,000 parking spots.

And they call that progress?

Yeah, so 30 years of Farm Aid. Now, that said, I can walk a block from my house and buy goat cheese made two counties over wrapped in prosciutto that is cured in Tennessee. Then you go to the grocery store and everything is from California. The Canadian marketplace for food I find very progressive by comparison to the U.S. Because of the short growing cycle there is intensive agriculture. A grocery store in Quebec is amazing how much produce is grown there hydroponically. We eat Quebec tomatoes in Tennessee. They grow a bunch of damn tomatoes in Quebec!

Final thoughts, on No Depression.

I was glad to hear that No Depression is back on the shelves. It’s a good brand and was all through the 1990s. When we landed on the cover of it around 2003 or so, that was the only magazine that was ever going to put us on the cover and one of the very few that ever has.

A Kinship for the Land and the Music: Farm Aid 30 Kicks Ass in the Windy City

SEPTEMBER 21, 2015
First Bank Pavillion, Northerly Island, Chicago, Illinois

Some came from New York, some from Las Vegas. Others traveled from rural America, where family farmers struggle most. No matter where they followed the white line from, all came to Farm Aid 30 for the same two reasons: the music and the cause. Each did their part, to make a difference, whether it was buying from the homegrown concession stands or learning from the farmers and advocates in the Homegrown Village. For the more than 26,000 strong who attended the sold-out 30th anniversary edition of this annual music marathon, it was worth the trip alone to hear rising rock stars (Insects vs. Aliens), descendants of country legends (Holly Williams), musical icons (Mavis Staples, Neil Young), and Grammy-winners like Old Crow Medicine Show all washed down with good organic food and craft beer.

Willie Nelson, or “the archangel Gabriel” as Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor called him during our interview, is the reason artists give up their time and money to play this annual benefit. Everyone believes in the Tao of Willie and the deep spirituality that radiates from his soul. By the time country music’s elder statesman — and original outlaw — closed the day’s festivities with his treasured songbook, many had already drank their fill and were filing to the exits. Still, Nelson and his family band kept playing on by the light of the crescent moon, to their unique rhythms. There’s no doubt, it’s Willie’s day. The perma-smile on his weathered face — not only there because of the Willie’s Reserve he was most likely smoking on his bus throughout the day — says it all.

The artists respect Nelson, and for good reason. Jack Johnson even premiered a satirical song, written about the Farm Aid founder, about getting stoned with the legendary musician and “Willie taking all [my] money.” The octogenerarian still is filled with passion for playing and for the plight of the family farmer. Wearing a black Farm Aid T-shirt, Nelson summed up the cause at the morning press conference with these well-chosen words:

When we started Farm Aid, a crisis was gripping farm country. Farm Aid called on America to stand up for family farmers. They showed up then, and they’re still showing up. All different types of people are coming together for family farmers, and we’re making a difference.

While Mother Nature sent a deluge of rain to the Chicago area the previous couple of days, thankfully the sun shone this past Saturday for the 30th anniversary of Farm Aid. At the presser before noon, Neil Young spewed his usual vitriol against corporate America, specifically calling out the government and large multinationals such as Monsanto.

We are up against a gigantic force that keeps coming at us from everywhere and it’s centred in our government and it’s backed up by multi-national corporations that are taking over the farm land of the United States, who produce 90 percent of the corn.

Some of Young’s faithful followers were spotted wandering the lawn later in the day wearing t-shirts that read: “F*#@ Monsanto.” Not surprisingly, Young’s late evening set featured several tunes from his latest record, critiquing these same companies and their practies. Old Black — Neil’s longtime companion (Black Gibson SJ) — was the conductor that had his latest garage rock band of followers, the Promise of the Real, led by Nelsons’ eldest son Lucas. The young band was trying to keep pace with this old man, who still rocks out with the best of them.

Holly Williams, granddaughter of the legendary Hank Williams, is carving out a fine career; she made the most of her early set. An ode to the white line, the title track “Highway” from her most recent release, was one of the highs. So was “Waiting on June,” a touching tribute to her grandparents’ love.

Old Crow Medicine Show paid their own tribute a wee bit later with a nod to Chicagoan and late, great songwriter Steve Goodman, with a spirited take on his classic “City of New Orleans.” The band was joined by Willie’s longtime harp player Mickey Raphael. OCMS lead singer/fiddler Secor, told me it just felt right to play this song. Hitting the stage shortly before 3 p.m., these members of the Grand Ole Opry brought a hoedown to Chicago’s lakefront with their seven-part harmony and foot-stompin’ music. Other highlights included “Wagon Wheel” and “I Hear Them All,” the latter which Dave Rawlings Machine recorded for their 2009 debut. Asked how OCMS ended up at Farm Aid, Secor told me, “Willie asked us and we were pleased to comply. I’d go anywhere Willie asked me to go!”

Later, Imagine Dragons brought the rock to this homegrown hoedown. The Las Vegas band — and Farm Aid first-timer — opened with “It’s Time.” Lead singer Dan Reynolds jumped next to me in the photo pit and then hopped the barrier and sang a verse or two while running down the aisles, before returning to the stage.

Other highlights included Kacey Musgraves sporting a powder blue, sequined dress, and backed by an all-male band who were dressed in pink nudie suits. They delivered a kick-ass cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” Another highlight was Mavis Staples’ gospel/blues revue set. Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds gave an acoustic guitar clinic, while fellow Farm Aid Board Member John Mellencamp rolled out many of his hits, including the apropos “Rain on the Scarecrow.”

Many of the artists also made themselves available to the fans. Jamey Johnson signed autographs and posed for selfies in the FarmYard Stage tent while Lucas Nelson peformed on the main stage. The ex-Marine even signed a female fans’ bicep with a sharpie.

As the sun set over Lake Michigan on this September night, Farm Aid proved yet again — 30 years on — that the cause is still strong. Farmers still struggle, and there is always need for more change at a grassroots and government level. Willie and his followers remain friends to the family farmer. That alone is cause for celebration.

This article was originally published at: www.nodepression.com