He took some time earlier this month to take our phone call from his hometown of Austin, Texas just before heading to Pennsylvania and New York for a handful of gigs.
Read what he had to say about the new record, writing songs and dreaming about Bruce Springsteen.
Q: It’s been several years since your last album, what was the trigger for you to get this group of songs down on record?
A: The fact that I needed another record. I’m slow, I’m a very slow songwriter. I don’t write songs unless I make myself write songs. So, early 2007 I was home on my winter break after touring all through ’06 with the last record, the “Unsung” record.
Early ’07 I just started buckling down on some ideas and taking little trips to get away from the phone and the internet and all that. About once or twice a month I’d go off for three or four days and stay at somebody’s spare house or guest house or something to get away from it all and I wrote almost all the songs that way.
Q: Lots of your songs seem to be narratives and stories – do you write about real people or are they more imagined people?
A: In the past, I’ve drawn on stories that I hear, read about in books or see in movies – or just hear from friends. I write about my friend’s lives, family. In the past I’ve done a lot of narrative storytelling, very traditional folk songs.
But on this new record, there’s a couple of those but on the new record it was exciting to try to push that envelope a little bit… push towards more of a personal, mysterious internal kind of thing. I think that’s what distinguishes this new record, it’s a little bit more personal.
Q: Do you have any personal favorites from the new album?
A: The song “Cry” has just felt very, very special to me from when I first started working on it. I saw kind of a vision of it and it’s that kind of song that has, I think, a broader appeal than most of the stuff I do.
Most of my stuff is pretty strongly in a narrow folk tradition but once in awhile I write a song that leans towards the music that you hear more commonly, music that has a chance to escape out to the wider culture.
“Cry” is one that I felt hit in that way from the beginning. When I was recording it, I tried to give it every chance I could to have a more broad appeal. I recorded it four different times with different musicians and producers.
Q: You were raised in the northeast, how did you end up in Austin?
A: I started my career up in Portland, Maine and there was a nice little local scene there but it wasn’t really big enough to get the critical mass you need to make a national career, there wasn’t enough infrastructure there. I looked at the music towns at the time, in the early ’90s there was New York and L.A. – but I’m a small town guy and those were intimidating to me.
Seattle was getting famous then, but growing up in Maine I didn’t want to go somewhere colder and wetter and darker than Maine. Minneapolis is too cold, Athens had kind of been spent – it came down to Nashville or Austin.
Some research showed that Nashville is more the center of the mass market and the generic style country music, whereas I soon realized that Austin was more of a breeding ground with a great local scene and a great tradition of songwriter. I knew about Austin City Limits, I knew about Joe Ely and Lucinda Williams and that was enough to get me down here.
Q: How did being in Austin change the way you went about making music?
A: What it did for the first few years was make me work a lot harder on the craft, I was a medium-sized fish in a tiny pond up in Maine and then I became a very, very small fish in a big pond in Austin.
And I struggled and failed for several years, 6, 7, 8 years and was on the brink of giving up but the realization finally hit that I had to be more self-critical and I had to be making music that would compete with the most favorite, top-level music that was getting the attention in Austin.
It became a Darwinian thing, I realized I had to get better and after that, things started getting better.
Q: There are all sorts of stories about the various day jobs you had while getting your musical career started. Which of them was the best, which of them was the worst?
A: The best and the worst was the same job. It was a medical research volunteer job that I took occasionally. There’s a company in Austin that needs a steady supply of healthy volunteers to be next in line after the rabbits and monkeys. I did a bunch of those studies, I could make a couple hundred or even a couple thousand dollars in a week or so which is way more than I could make with my other skills which are none.
That was a real lifesaver, it allowed me to make enough money to pay bills for a couple of months, plus I also had my wife working a day job and I was racking up credit cards, so every little bit helps. I didn’t have to tie myself down to a 9 to 5 job.
Q: What about the Ribbon of Highway shows, how are those shows different than the other things you do?
A: First of all, it’s really sweet to be part of a little traveling troupe as opposed to just being by myself or only a side guy. It’s almost like summer camp, we’re friends and we’ve done this a bunch of times over the last six years and it’s always a nice reunion to get together and do a show together.
It’s difficult sometimes because I only do four or five songs all night and they’re separated by lots of time so basically I have to step up and do my little bit and then sit back and it’s hard. I find that hard on the performance side, I’d much rather get up there and get warmed up and play for an hour and a half. So, it’s kind of nerve wracking, it’s like being in a play where I take my position and look for my cue and do my bit and get off the stage, sit around and wait for awhile, listen to the show.
It’s an amazing show, I love being part of it. And it’s really nice not to have to plug my own thing, I spend so much of my time promoting my own self – it’s almost like volunteer work, I get paid for it and all but I’m spreading the word about something else that I believe in and that’s important, it’s not about me at all.
Q: Are there things you always bring with you on tour?
A: I’m doing that right now, I’m packing today. So I’m trying to remember, I haven’t been on a big tour in a long time – I know I’ll forget something, the phone charger or something like that so I’m making that checklist. That’s my job for the rest of the day, wander around the house looking for stuff I need.
Of course, the flip side of that question is that there’s always something you bring that you end up not using and carrying around for 10,000 miles, which is almost as bad. I’m trying to keep it lean and mean.
Q: If you could sit down for an hour with any musician, alive or dead, who would it be and what would you talk about?
A: I sometimes dream about talking to Bruce Springsteen, it’s always that he’s offering me advice or I’m picking his brain and we’re talking about certain aspects of the music business or something. In reality, of course, I’d be too freaked out to be confident at all if I was in a room with Bruce and had a minute to talk I don’t know what I’d say.
I think I’ve also talked to Buddy Holly and John Lennon in my dreams.
Q: And what kind music is in your CD player?
A: I’m almost always listening to friends and colleagues. People like Adam Carroll, Eliza Gilkyson, Jimmy LaFave, Mary Gauthier. I really don’t listen to that much music, it’s kind of sad but when I do listen to music it’s usually friends, Sam Baker is another one. Or, it’s Tom Waits.