Frank Turner’s Passion Play

frankturner2A Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls show is one of those rock and roll nights of magic, an exchange of joy and energy and abandon.

Turner acts as much as ringleader as performer, an undeniable combination of showman and punk folkie (or is it folk punker?).

So the first thing to explore in an interview is the genesis of that passion.

“It comes from growing up with punk rock, particularly the underground hardcore scene,” he says on a call from the road, where he basically lives these days. “I remember very distinctly going to my first punk show. The first band finished and jumped from the front of the stage into the front row and the next band jumped up onto the stage out of the crowd, grabbed their instruments, and played.”

“That was a very simple demonstration of an idea, the idea that this is not separate,” he adds. “That this is a community of people who like music and who are going to communicate.”

This is a man, after all, who played 24 shows in 24 hours for a video of his song, “The Road.” This is a guy who lives on the road although he spent a couple of weeks before our interview, unplugged relaxing on holiday. “That was a rare thing and a welcome thing,” he admits. “To spend two weeks almost not being me. Not being the public me.”

That comment indicates just how much Turner identifies with being the master up on stage, whipping up the crowd with singalongs like “Photosynthesis.”

And I won’t sit down
And I won’t shut up
And most of all I will not grow up

Turner became a solo act a decade ago after his punk band, Million Dead, shattered into so many pieces. “We were touring for four and a half years,” he says. “In that time, we learned to hate each other with a particularly succinct precision. We were never really friends. We were sort of co-conspirators. In the short term, that made us a better band. We had different ideas about what we were trying to do. It made us more than the sum of our parts. But it also meant we were doomed to failure.”

During that time, laying on his back in the rear of a van, he listened to artists like Johnny Cash during his American Recordings period, Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” as well as Bob Dylan, Townes van Zandt and Loudon Wainwright III.

“All of which was new to me because my parents did not believe in modern music,” he explains. His original entry into modern music as Iron Maiden followed by Nirvana. Merge all of those artists from metal to trad country to spare Springsteen and you get a sense of a Frank Turner show and album.

He was looking to challenge himself, get outside his comfort zone. He thought getting on stage with an acoustic guitar was worth a try. And that’s how Turner came to create his driving, frenzied live act that makes a nod to The Pogues, The Clash, Springsteen and Black Flag.

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His latest disc, “Positive Songs for Negative People,” was recorded live in the studio over nine days. Ten songs, nine days. Esme Patterson, who so beautifully duets with Shakey Graves, lends some vocal support on one of his favorites, “Silent Key,” a tune about Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who died in the Challenger explosion.

His previous record, “Tape Deck Heart,” was one of those where he spent a long time in the studio crafting a collection of breakup songs with himself as the bad guy.

“I wanted it (“Positive Songs”) to have that kind of (live) immediacy,” he says. “It was also a reaction to the previous record, going down rabbit holes arrangement-wise. There was a vibe that this time I wanted to do the opposite, more on the fly. A common criticism – that I think is legitimate — is we haven’t made a record that captures the vibe we have as a live band.”

Two tunes on “Positive Songs” hit home particularly hard and personally. “Silent Key” formed out of the hazy memory he had of the disaster as a four-year-old. “I cannot quite remember the Challenger disaster,” he says. “It’s something that happened on the edge of my subconscious memory. There was a sort of tragic poetry to the situation. She was engaged in the space program to get people more interested and dies on international TV. That just seemed like something interesting to explore lyrically.”

“I really love that song,” he adds. “I try hard to be sensitive to the idea she was a real human being with a family. I did not want to sensationalize it, but it seemed like a story worth telling.”

Another story he told was of a longtime friend, Josh Burdette, who worked security at Washington D.C.’s 9:30 Club in “Song for Josh.” Burdette took his life and Turner achingly asks in the song why he didn’t call. To complete the circle, Turner recorded the song live at the 9:30 Club.

He says he does not shy away from tough topics. He’s drawn to them.

“I think there are boundaries about how the material relates to other people,” he says. “In terms of relating to myself, I try quite hard not to have boundaries. I have a thing I mentally call the wince factor. If I write something that makes me wince, I often feel like that’s a good thing. It’s making an emotional dent of some kind and that’s something worth pursuing.”

His sixth disc, “Positive Songs” is more introspective in places than his others. Part of that may be that Turner has sworn off political songs after dealing with a backlash. “Three-minute pop songs are the worst format for having any kind of adult discussion about politics,” he says.

He’s become more interested in music as a unifying force than a dividing force. “Thirdly,” he adds, rolling now, “I shy away from that kind of conversation, from the arrogance that says because I have a platform with music, my positions are more important than anybody else’s.”

That’s Frank the punker, talking, of course.

He says he’s something of a contrarian. Punk is where he headed after school with the British elite, first at Eton (where Prince William and other nobility learned) and then the London School of Economics. He’s careful to point out that he attended each on scholarship and that is grateful for the fine education. Oh, and Joe Strummer also went to boarding school.

“Once the wider social implications (of boarding school) became clear as soon as I was old enough to understand them, they were uncomfortable to me,” he says.

His solution was to turn to The Clash and Black Flag. And to turn to the road.

“It’s just kind of like I ran away and joined that circus,” he says. “That’s driven most of the rest of what I do with my life.”

 

 

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Squeeze Returns Stronger Than Ever

squeeze-2016 Ok, let’s get this out of the way. Yes, Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford, the songwriters in the sublime pop/rock band Squeeze, repeatedly were labeled the next Lennon and McCartney during the 1980s.

It was not a publicist’s hype. Their songs were catchy. It seemed like you’d heard them before from the first spin. The melodies wormed into your head and stayed for days and days. The lyrics explored everything from meditations on love to fractured internal monologues. The sophisticated songs shifted from slow burns like “Black Coffee in Bed” to the wacky, pulsing “Pulling Mussels from a Shell” to the Stones-country-era twang of “Labelled with Love.” The Velvet Underground’s John Cale and Elvis Costello produced albums for them.

But they never became superstars. And then it came apart, as it does for so many groups. Difford is sober and has been for years, but in those days he had a rapacious appetite for booze and drugs.

Difford and Tilbrook didn’t speak for nine years. Difford focused on management and writing for others. Tilbrook toured, paying his dues again, solo and with a Squeeze-like group, The Fluffers.

They got together, then broke up. Then tried to write again and failed.

“I thought after that after the last time we split up, I was pretty sure that was it,” Tilbrook says by phone.
It wasn’t. Television — the BBC — brought them together one more time.

When the BBC decided to turn the autobiography of TV reporter, host, and DJ Danny Baker into a comedy series, they approached the duo.

Difford and Tilbrook had not written together since a try at one song in 2004. They gave it one more try and this time, they reconciled. Slowly. “I’d come on as a writer. I respected what Chris had done (since then),” Tilbrook says. “It was important to have that time apart and the experience of learning something new. Still it was hard to get started. It was hard to get properly working in the same room. That took a while.”

Their first song, “Cradle to Grave,” became not only the title to the album first Squeeze album in 17 years, but the title of the series. The producers were thrilled.

So was Tilbrook. “I thought that’s right up there with everything we’ve done,” he says after finishing the tune. “It had a sort of joyfulness to it, a bounce to it, things that are quite important to Squeeze.”

Over about six months, the two wrote about 25 songs, most for the television show, which is based in the 1970s when Barker is going to school as a young boy. The time coincides with the period that when Squeeze was forming after Tilbrook answered an ad that Difford posted on a sweet shop window in southeast London.

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“The BBC series gave us the impetus, A, not only to write, but, B, we created a more nostalgic record than we would have otherwise,” he says. “See, we shared a lot of those experiences. It was fun. Our job was to look back on that time.”
From the bouncy beat of “Cradle” to the keyboard disco opening of “Nirvana” to the soulful story of a wedding in “Open” to the New Wave-y groove of “Honeytrap,” the album sits easily alongside “East Side Story,” “Argybargy,” and “Sweets from a Stranger.”

While the songs were inspired by the script, they also stand as album tracks. In fact, Tilbrook notes that “Open,” about a wedding on the show is really about Difford’s wedding. “I knew what it was when I read it,” he says. “It’s about Chris’s wedding where he and I both disappeared. It’s a very emotionally-charged occasion. To see him settle down with his wife. It was just lovely.”

The two had long promised new material after getting together to play as Squeeze in 2007. “We’ve been back together since then, but the always difficult thing was going to be moving forward,” Tilbrook says. “Up until about four years ago, we were the best Squeeze tribute band playing the songs faithfully.”

He says Brian Wilson does that and does it well. So it wasn’t horrible. “”If you pay attention to detail and also remember it’s got to be fun. It’s not just the thing you do to subsidize your life. It’s got to be with a passion,” he adds. “Otherwise, it doesn’t work.”

But the new record means a future, not just a past for Squeeze. They’ve already recorded one song for a new album and will get together to write a new record next year. “We’re proud of our history,” he says. “We don’t ignore it. But the thing that propels us forward is there’s a current thing (album) that stands up to the rest.”

The set list features a healthy dose of the classics with a few from the new disc thrown in. So far, one of the group’s great almost-lost songs, “Annie Get Your Gun,” has not appeared. It was a casualty of their first breakup. The two had written it and “Action Speaks Faster,” offering the group to choose one. Squeeze chose “Annie,” while “Action” ended up on the Tilbook and Difford duo disc.

When they got to the studio to record “Annie,” the engineer had set up the backing tracks. “I’m very proud of that record,” Tilbrook says. “It was made on a Fairlight (an early computer music synthesizer) and we just sang on top of it (the track),” he says. “So it was a bit like being on The Monkees. Of course, the way it was going, the writing was on the wall.”

They broke up before the Squeeze album with the song was released, then got back together a few years later, lasted for a handful more albums, and then split again in 1999.

Difford and Tilbrook are the only original members in the band, but then Squeeze has always been a revolving-door band. “We’re in such a good place,” he says. “The band is incredible. I think the album reflects that.”

Tilbrook also thinks he brings different things to the band and the writing room. He wrote with Ron Sexsmith, Aimee Mann and others. The split freed him to do more touring solo and with The Fluffers, who are now essentially the rest of Squeeze. “It was really back to basics,” he says. “We were sleeping on people’s couches. I was paying my dues all over again. That’s what I wanted to do. I really wanted to be an accountable musician.”

Now, he’s a musician with accountants. The new album is a hit in the UK. “So to be where we are now — this record has done better than any other Squeeze record — is quite amazing. People are going crazy for us like we’re a new band. It’s a strange and humbling experience, but a really beautiful one.”

Squeeze with The English Beat Monday, Oct. 10 at The NorVa.

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Firefall Endures As Songs Find New Fans

firefall2Jock Bartley is the one member of Firefall who has been with the band through its 40-year run opening with a debut album that produced enduring radio hits like “You Are the Woman,” “Livin’ Ain’t Livin’ ” and “Cinderella.”

Over those years, he’s seen band members pass away, leave and return. Original bandmates David Muse and Mark Andes have been back in the group over the last four years, but it’s a relative newcomer, Newport News native Gary Jones who may make the biggest difference.

Jones and Bartley go back a couple of decades in Nashville, but Jones didn’t join Firefall as its lead singer until a couple of years ago. Original vocalists and songwriters, Rick Roberts and Larry Burnett, aren’t up to touring, Bartley says.
Jones, though, brings the band back to the days of those early hits, making Firefall another long-standing band that’s found a new lead singer who lets fans close their eyes and imagine.

“To have a guy who sounds like Rick in the band is really great because we’re sounding like our records except it’s 40 years later,” Bartley says on a call from Colorado, his longtime home. “There’s still an incredible amount of energy. It’s really cool to still be doing this. We all know how lucky we are.”

So the band has found its groove again? “We’ve been in the groove, but the groove is definitely more pronounced,” he answers.

Firefall was a comet in the universe of Southern California soft rock, releasing a debut that dominated the airwaves then slipping away into the night sky.

Bartley looks back at how important timing was for him and the band. “So many bands never get a chance to go out on the diving board and jump in the big pool and see if you can swim,” he says.

Firefall, which appears at The Neptune Festival on Oct. 2, had a winning few laps in the deep end with the debut album’s hit and later winners like “Just Remember I Love You,” “Mexico,” “Strange Way” and “Goodbye, I Love You.”
Why has the band endured?

“That’s easy. Looking back over 40 years, it’s all attributable to the songs. There are hundreds of thousands of great bands out there who just don’t have the songs. And sometimes they have the songs, but don’t get the right break. All the other things have to lead to that point,” he says. “But it really all starts with the songs.”

Those songs came from Burnett and Roberts. Roberts, a former member of The Flying Burrito Brothers, had worked with Bartley in Boulder and was contemplating a third solo album when the band formed. Burnett was driving a cab in Washington, D.C.

“Rick would write commercial “You Are the Woman” type of things,” Bartley says. “He really knew about the game and getting radio airplay. His stuff was melodic and wonderful, but it was a bit formulaic and destined to get airplay.”

“Larry Burnett wrote songs that purged from his gut,” he adds. “Their songwriting styles were so different. One of the reasons we made great records was the difference between the two songwriters and their songs. It was magical.”
Bartley’s journey into the group involves a bit of magic as well. He attended the University of Colorado and settled in Boulder. By the early 1970s, many of the big names of the SoCal rock scene had moved into town. Caribou Ranch Recording Studio was there, the recording home to Chicago, Carole King, Rick Derringer, and Elton John (who named an album after it), among others.

Stephen Still, Chris Hillman, Richie Furay, Dan Fogelberg, and Willie Nelson spent time in town. When Firefall was forming, it wasn’t uncommon for Stephen Stills, Joe Walsh, or Fogelberg to sit in at a live show.

Bartley got his break a few years earlier when Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. The first stop of their 1973 tour with The Fallen Angels was Boulder, where they were booked for three nights. The band was woefully unprepared on the first night. Parsons promised changes. On the third night, Bartley sat in with them. Parsons hired him on the spot.

“The next day I was on the bus, learning the songs and trying to play the James Burton guitar parts,” he says. Burton, Elvis Presley’s guitarist, had been hired to play on Parsons’s album, but the ill-fated songwriter couldn’t afford him for the tour.
Their next stop was another three-night stand in Houston, where Linda Ronstadt and Neil Young joined the band on stage. “Oh my god,” Bartley says. “I was not able to pay rent three days ago and now I’m on stage with Linda Ronstadt and Neil Young. The finish to that story is a lot of things happened that are fated to happen.”

firefall3Parsons completed the tour and his next studio album before dying in September 1973. Bartley returned to Boulder after meeting Rick Roberts during a Fallen Angels show at Max’s Kansas City in New York. They played for a bit in Chris Hillman’s band.

In 1975, they got together there with bassist Mark Andes, who had been in Spirit, and invited Burnett to join them. For the drums, they auditioned a bunch of locals, but finally settled on Roberts’ old Burrito Brothers compadre, Michael Clarke, who had been in The Byrds.

Roberts took the name from Yosemite Firefall, a summer tradition of dumping flaming embers off Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park.

Signed to a deal with Atlantic Records, they recorded the debut in a month at Miami’s Criteria Studios (Caribou was too expensive at the time). Stephen Still was working on a record there. So were The Bee Gees.

Bartley recalls playing his big solo on “Mexico” in the studio, telling the producer after that he wanted to go back and clean up a few things. No need. Just come into the control room. He walked in and there was Eric Clapton, enjoying the session. “Had I known before I was playing for him, I couldn’t have even held a pick,” he says.

Their debut, “Firefall,” became the label’s quickest release to one million in sales, effectively giving Bartley and the band a lifetime career. “It’s a privilege to still do this,” he says. “Music becomes such a big part of people’s lives. It’s just so great to have meant a lot through our music to millions of people throughout the world.”

Clarke died of liver failure after his bouts with alcohol in 1993. Andes left then returned. Burnett and Roberts went on to solo careers and no longer tour. Jones joined fulltime in 2014. He grew up in Seaford. His first concert was The Statler Brothers and Mel Tillis opening for Johnny Cash. He soon picked up the guitar and eventually played in local bands. He first crossed paths with Firefall watching them play a 1977 show at William & Mary Hall. By 1996, he’d moved to Nashville where he met Bartley. He sat in once with the band in 1999, but didn’t become a member until 2014.

Now, he’s the Firefall frontman for a new generation.

Bartley says he’s always surprised signing autographs after shows when fans in their 20s and 30s come up for autographs.
“The music is still vibrant,” he says. “We still enjoy playing it.”

 

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Shakey Graves Has Faith in Spooky BS

 

Shakey GravesAlejandro Rose-Garcia
3/13/14
Billy Reid showcase at Weather Up

Shakey Graves — Alejandro Rose-Garcia

Shakey Graves says he’d taken psychedelics plenty before so he’s not sure why that one time in Los Angeles in 2010 was different. But that mushroom trip launched him into another songwriting plane.

The child actor — “Spy Kids,” “Friday Night Lights” — who grew up in Austin as Alejandro Rose-Garcia says up until then, he thought writing songs involved picking up a guitar, thinking a lot about lyrics, and then pulling together a few chords to churn out one of those “I love the girl, but she does not love me” songs.

“There wasn’t a lot of room for interpretation,” he says. “It felt very human and very teenage.”
But after he went on a three-day rant in LA that ended with police admitting him for observation at a mental hospital, everything changed. “It’s a long story, but some crazy shit happened. It kind of opened the door that in some ways I guess has never really shut,” he says one afternoon as he and the band are loading their bus for a tour that brings them to The NorVa on July 27.

“It was basically seeing through the veil,” he adds, on a roll now. “It’s one of those things that when it happened the message to me was no one is going to believe you anyway. No one is going to believe you’ve seen something, now you know there’s mysteries in the universe. congratulations, you get a medal and now you get to learn how to fly and shoot laser beams out of your eyes.”

“It gave me a sort of faith, I suppose, a faith in spooky bullshit,” he adds. “I’m not sure how else to describe it.”

“Why does this all matter in the first place? Is our whole life being afraid of being a dead person? Is that what we’re all doing? Constantly not dying? Is that it? No. There’s something more beautiful that all of this. There’s this miraculous mystery that at my best I try to speak about eloquently.”

He became Shakey Graves not long after that. It was partly a grin. But it’s also dark in a way. “Grim, but also playful,” he says.

He moved back in with his mother in Austin and started playing everywhere he could around town. He says he took lessons early so he wouldn’t hurt himself playing guitar, but he’s largely self-taught. He’ll go up to someone else and say listen to this bizarre thing I found. That’s a diminished chord, is the snarky reply. His songs are filled with odd time changes and chord progressions.

“The way I play is just an extension of my body,” he adds. “I learned how to fingerpick from “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas. If you want to learn how to fingerpick get that down and you’re good. “

He says keeping his mind out of it worked best. “In a lot of ways, my body knows what I’m doing much better than I do,” Rose-Garcia explains. “If I keep myself out of it, I usually play better.”

That takes him back to the Los Angeles bender. “There’s a good analogy to the experience we were talking about,” he explains. “I had a Peter Pan moment. I lost my shadow for a long time. I finally stitched it back onto my body. It’s me and the intuitive side of me now. They have communication. That’s a pleasant thing in a lot of performance. Dance. Singing. Most physical arts. You let the spirit flow. “

“Music as an experience can be very cheap and recreational, nothing wrong with that,” Rose-Garcia adds. “But it can also be an intensely profound experience. I try and tow that line. To keep it like a really profound joke.”

His time in Austin was a sort of apprenticeship. He wrote hundreds of songs. He learned how to play for three hours, blasting through songs and figuring out what stuck with listeners. He went through a series of versions of his one-man band, eventually settling on guitar, vocals and keeping rhythm on a foot pedal and a suitcase.

He thought he had something. Then he went to an open mic in New York and got his ass kicked. “It really put me in my place,” he says.

Over time, he created a live show that remains his signature. Eventually, he added Chris Boosahda, his drummer and producer. He became huge on the festival circuit.

His 2011 debut, “Roll the Bones,” was a one-man affair. With “And the War Came” in 2014, he expanded with a full band. For that disc, he worked with Esme Patterson, who had just left the Colorado band, Paper Bird. They created arguably his biggest hit, “Dearly Departed.”

“I was branching into something bigger,” he says. “There’s a lot of human emotion and personal stuff that goes down with sharing the songwriting process. It was way more challenging than I assume. Shit’s weird. You have a life. I have a life. It was unfair to drag you around to play in my show,” he says, talking partly to himself and Patterson, it seems. “There was a lot of reality that I discovered. How delicate a songwriting collaboration can really be.”

For this tour, he’s playing with a band of four, including his old LA buddy, Patrick O’Connor, on guitar. They would play awful music and say, man, one day we’ll be in a band back in the day. Now, they are. “We’ve had more than one moment sticking our heads out of the tour bus at 5 in the morning screaming, ‘I can’t believe it,” Rose-Garcia says.

Adding a bass player completed the group. “The band has never sounded better. We really started being a band this year,” he adds. “We’ve all kind of fallen into the pocket finally.”

He says the live show is inspired by The Talking Heads movie, “Stop Making Sense.” “It’s really kind of genius, starting stripped-down and by the end it’s an entire production,” he notes. So at times during the night it’s a one-man band, it’s a duo, a power trio, and a four-person electric or acoustic group. They don’t always start slow, though. “The set list is malleable. Every night is an ordeal. Some nights we’re all hungry so we kick it off with all four,” he says. “Some nights I will go out and play.”

The plan is to go on hiatus next year and perhaps collaborate on a new album. It’s another writing challenge. “It’s still one of those things. I’m not sure how people write together,” he says. “I don’t know the routine. I don’t know how other bands do that. This is the closest I’ve ever gotten to writing as a group. I guess the contact is me. It’s my project. Lyrically and musically I have the final veto. But my goal is to stay out of my fellow musicians’ ways, start with what they hear.”

That sounds about right. Graves may be a singular player, a guy who doesn’t just jump over the boundaries, but never sees them. So collaborating with a band seems like it will be no different than collaborating with psychedelic mushrooms or Boosahda and Patterson.

“We have a ton of unfinished material with great potential,” he adds. “We play these licks over and over again. The baby wants to be born.”

Debut Album: Overman’s Odyssey Calls Him Home

willovermanGrowing up in Virginia Beach, Will Overman picked up the guitar at an early age thanks to his dad. When his father turned 40, they decided to learn an instrument together.

“A big part of our relationship has been music,” he says. “It’s just always been festering throughout my life and has grown to be something I hold very dear.”
Those lessons started Overman on a winding journey both through the geography of the East and the craft of songwriting that led this month to the release of The Will Overman Band’s self-titled debut album.

“I think that once I tasted it and started performing and being able to express myself, I just couldn’t stop,” Overman says from Charlottesville, where he’s a rising senior majoring in sociology (and playing in a traveling band). “I played sports when I was younger. I had other endeavors. I’m a big backpacker. But as I thought about other life paths, nothing ever seemed as fulfilling and satisfying.”

He writes because he has to write, he adds, quoting a Springsteen line about even if he was an electrician or a plumber, he’d still come home to write every night.

Overman’s physical journey on the way to building the band and completing the album began with writing songs at home in Virginia Beach.

“Son,” the first single, began when he was 16. It appeared on his solo EP, but was rerecorded for the album and included at the insistence of the band. Now, it sounds like Springsteen-gone-country on “Tunnel of Love.” Overman’s world-weary vocals are framed by a sighing pedal steel.

“That was the kind of song through high school when we all drank too much, we would pull out the guitar and play it,” he adds. “It was definitive of that era of my life.”

After high school, Overman hiked the Appalachian Trail, then headed off to the University of Vermont. He lasted one semester. He returned to Virginia, went to community college in Charlottesville, and then enrolled at UVA. “I definitely took the scenic route through college,” he cracks.

In Charlottesville, Overman knew he wanted to start a band. So he did what every Internet savvy musician does: he posted an ad on Craigslist.

Guitarist Daniel McCarthy, who is classically trained, joined him first. They played as a duo for a while before the wild card, drummer Chis Helms, was added to the deck. Helms, who is welder a few decades older than Overman, knew the friend of a friend from Virginia Beach. He came, he played, he stayed. A backup singer played a few gigs but couldn’t commit to the group. Then Brittney Wagner came to see them play and ended up joining to sing. That was it. She signed on.

Bass player J Wilkerson didn’t arrive until the winter of 2014. The band went a long time playing without one. In the interim, Overman made it through two rounds of The Voice auditions in Nashville in 2013. He was interviewed by producers, but was not chosen to be on the show.

“I learned that I really wanted to make music and build what it stood for organically,” he says. “That almost seems antiquated in the current music climate. But I really think there is a lot of value in a band scraping their way through, earning their fans one at a time. The music I want to write and I want to create is made for that process. “

The band created a Kickstarter campaign with a $10,000 goal. They surpassed that quickly, reaching $12,000 to record and release the album on CD and download. “We luckily have a pretty devout following for how long we’ve been around,” Overman says.

He says The Beatles made him a music fan, but he’s loved The Avett Brothers since childhood. “My number one influence,” he adds. “They still are. Loved their raw energy. Seeing them live made me love that band. Their live influence is more so than the writing. I try to take that raw live performance and apply it to our shows.”

He ticks off a list of top shelf songwriters as influences. Ryan Adams, Guy Clark, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Josh Ritter and The Woods Brothers.

He likes to stay up late, writing when the birds stop singing and everyone is asleep. “I can think and be critical, write my better songs,” Overman says.

The songs for the album were road tested, ridden long and hard on trips down to Nashville and up to New York and Philadelphia as well as bars and festivals that should not have been called festivals, he jokes. “Anything to get our name out there,” he adds. Overman scheduled his classes Monday through Thursday so the band could hit the road for long weekends. He also worked a part-time job, but confesses he’s since been fired for missing work.

The sound fits his influences with the foot-stomping folk-rock energy of the Avetts on a cut like “All I Say,” but the introspection and craft of a Guy Clark on a cut like “The Gravedigger.” It’s an effort that from beginning to end makes you want to hit replay as soon as the final notes of the last cut, “Pilot Mountain,” fade. The disc is not just a promising band debut; it’s a catchy, accomplished album.

They recorded at Monkeyclaus in Roseland beginning in February and adding the final touches in May. Throughout, there’s a Virginia vein in songs like “Assateague Island,” “Ode to Virginia” and “Pilot Mountain.”

“Pilot Mountain” was born on a road trip as the band drove back through North Carolina and saw it in the distance. They hopped off the Interstate and onto backroads, a decision that featured watching a mama bear and her cubs and a jump into the New River.

“It was revitalizing. It got us ready for our next gig, which just happened to be in an empty room with just bartenders,” he says. “That song means a lot to every person in the band.”

Jason Isbell Savors the Time to Dig Deep

isbell-something-more-than-free ‘Cause a hammer needs a nail
And the poor man’s up for sale
Guess I’m doin’ what I’m on this earth to do

And I don’t think on why I’m here where it hurts
I’m just lucky to have the work
And every night I dream I’m drowning in the dirt
But I thank God for the work

 

Don’t worry about Jason Isbell feeling the pressure after releasing two solo albums as good as any created in the past decade.

“I signed up for it,” he says by phone one Saturday afternoon. “I’m not going to sit around now and say people giving a shit makes it harder to keep doing. I’ll fight that urge. That’s a battle I’ll win. This is what I wanted. I’m not going to let it get ruined by any bullshit pressure that I might put on myself. “

This is what it’s like talking to Jason Isbell. Forthright. Reflective. Honest. This is the guy who topped Billboard’s Rock, Folk, and Country album charts when his latest, “Something More Than Free” was released last year.

Great artists have that rush of creativity at the highest level. Steve Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen’s longtime sideman, likes to talk about 100 songs. Dylan, Springsteen, The Stones, Zeppelin, Paul Simon, Lucinda Williams. All had that string of consistently stellar output.
Isbell seems on his run now with 2013’s “Southeastern,” the Grammy winner for best Americana album, and last year’s “Something More…,” which featured a move into rocking territory with “24 Frames,” the first single.

Does Isbell think he’s found something that’s raised his art to another level?

“I have more time. I think that’s what happens when you’re sober,” he says. “You realize you have as much time in the day as anybody who’s ever done anything. Before that, I spent many, many hours out of every day either recovering from the night before or getting drunk again.”

Isbell, who plays Chrysler Hall on June 22, famously was fired by the Southern rock band, Drive-By Truckers for his drinking. Ryan Adams, Amanda Shires (now his wife and the mother of his daughter) and his manager got him into a rehab that likely saved his life.

“The songs that came easily and quickly would be just as good as the ones that come easily now,” he adds of those days. “But the ones I had to spend time working on and actually edit and really bear down on that (are the ones) I became a lot more capable when I sobered up. I had more time to work on them.”

On his last two albums, he says the high points aren’t much higher than on his three previous discs. “But the songs in between are a helluva lot stronger,” he says.

In an industry that rewards throw-away pleasures like the drivel from Florida Georgia Line or the latest one-hit, auto-tuned pop confection, Isbell makes no apologies for writing songs that cause listeners to pause and think.

Is he ever intimidated sitting down to write?

“Oh yeah. Some projects are terrifying. Sometimes you have something you want to say that’s very complex, a story you want to tell that has a lot of angles to it,” he says. “I think if you don’t feel that way every once in a while, then you’re not challenging yourself.”

In “Elephant,” he wrote about a woman dealing with cancer. In “Dress Blues,” he told the story of a high school friend, Marine Cpl. Matthew Conley, who was killed in Iraq by an explosive device in 2006. In “24 Frames,” he reflects on how quickly things can change. “You thought God was an architect, now you know,” he sings. “He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.”

He talks about being able to access “those parts of yourself that sometimes you keep hidden.”

“Once you go through the arduous process of confronting your own fears and learning how to communicate with yourself and other people, it can’t help but inform the work,” he adds.

Becoming sober made that easier.

He writes year round, not just for an album. He writes, he says, to explore things that seem intolerable, to unpack them, and explain them to himself.

“When you’re a kid you think something’s in the closet until you work up the courage to get out of bed and look for yourself,” Isbell says. “You can spend a lot of years hollering for your dad to come do it or you can get out of bed at five years old, open the door, and when there’s nothing in there, go to sleep.

“That’s really the reason I started to write songs, to confront those things,” he adds. “Things about my upbringing or the places that I’m from. About society in general. About personal relations. Things that were very terrifying to me until I looked them in the face and explained them to myself. They don’t scare me so much any more.”

 

 

A heart on the run keeps a hand on the gun you can’t trust anyone
I was so sure what I needed was more tried to shoot out the sun
Days when we raged, we flew off the page such damage was done
But I made it through, cause somebody knew I was meant for someone
So girl, leave your boots by the bed we ain’t leaving this room
Till someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom
It’s cold in this house and I ain’t going out to chop wood
So cover me up and know you’re enough to use me for good

Isbell is a family man. He and Shires, who has her own solo career, but also plays in his band, recently purchased a place 45 minutes out of Nashville. They have a daughter less than a year old.

He says he gets more excited by things like looking to buy a tractor these days. He grew up in Greenville, Alabama, to parents who were not well educated on paper. But they could carry on a conversation with anyone. He started reading early on and still does, judging by his social media feeds and his list of favorite writers. Jennifer Egan, Peter Matthiessen, Adam Johnson, and Dennis Johnson are among the names he mentions.

His daughter is an easy baby so far.

“Will Johnson, a good friend and a great songwriter, said it’s really a psychedelic experience (having a child). It’s a lot like being on LSD and staring at your face in the mirror,” Isbell says. “That has made sense in a whole lot of ways.”
He says he watches her pick up a toy and figure out not only that it’s a toy, but also something not attached to her hand. She starts from scratch with every experience.

“It’s changed my whole way of seeing the world. It changes everything,” he adds about his daughter. “It’s supposed to.”

Are you living the life you chose
Are you living the life that chose you
Are you taking a grown up dose
Do you live with a man who knows you
Like I thought I did back then
But I guess I never did
Did I kid?

He says he likes being big enough to play arenas in some areas, but prefers to play multiple nights in a theater. “Some of the best nights I’ve ever had as a musician happened in rooms where nobody could hear a single word I’m saying,” he says.

Having his own sound crew and equipment so it sounds great night after night, “means the world to me.”

Isbell compares Americana today with the punk of yesterday because fans demand legitimacy. “You get the sense the number one thing for most fans is for it to be legitimate, to honor the roots, and not give a shit about anything else,” he adds.

Isbell is all over social media. Check out his Twitter and Facebook feeds. He pimps songwriters he likes including WIlliam Tyler, Courtney Barnett, and Hayes Carll. He mentions Monk and pal Sturgill Simpson in the same breath. He trades bus nacho recipes with Rosanne Barr. He cracks Game of Thrones jokes.

“That’s another one of those things being sober really comes in handy,” he says. “It’s a dangerous world out there for people who drink, especially on social media. That’s like driving. There was a time when I just couldn’t do it after dark. Now. I like it a lot.

“I have a lot of time to sit and think. Not everything strikes me as inspiration for a song. Sometimes, I just want to get it out. I think with the kind of music I’m making, the kind of career that I have, the more people know about me personally, the more they wind up rooting for me.”

He also thinks he’s showing another side of him, one not heard in his songs. “My personality is very different on a day-to-day basis from what people hear in song,” Isbell adds. “If they only hear the songs, they might think I’m a sad sonofabitch. That’s not the case at all.

“Most of the time, it’s all a comedy to me. I put songs out there when I’m focusing and trying to explain things. It gets very heady and very serious, but the rest of the day, I’m pretty much a jackass. “

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Robyn Hitchcock Returns to Norfolk

robynhForget about balloon man, the lightbulb head or the globe of frogs, Robyn Hitchcock says he’s really a romantic songwriter.

Oh, he acknowledges he’s known for his wordplay, those brilliant early albums that gave a bow to Dylan and The Beatles. He’s the man with the lightbulb head who turns himself on all the time. He’s the guy who says “being just contaminates the void” and “the line between us is so thin I might as well be you.”

But subsequent discs have shown his emotional side. His spare, achingly beautiful cover of Bryan Ferry’s “To Turn You On” from Hitchcock’s latest, “The Man Upstairs,” is only the most recent example.

While perhaps best known for his dreamy, smart pop made with The Egyptians in the 1980s, Hitchcock has continued to be prolific, releasing a stream of fine discs solo and with the Venus 3 over the past 15 years.

He makes his first return to the area since a show at The Boathouse in 1989 (if his memory is right) with a duo show at the Norfolk Yacht and Country Club with his partner, the Aussie songstress, Emma Swift on April 7.

“I had already been known for something else and people’s first impressions always stick,” he says from Nashville, where he’s lived the last few years.

He says about the time his group, The Soft Boys, ended he got deeply into late Roxy Music, “Flesh and Blood” and “Avalon.”

“That had an enormous impact on me,” he says. “I could write something a bit more delicate. The diet I brought myself up on was quite brutal in a way. Dylan was harsh. I loved The Beatles. They were almost like children. But there were romantic nuances in Bryan Ferry. He was very agile, very sophisticated. He probably processes things very thoroughly. There’s nothing raw or primal.”

“As I got older, it just kicked in, a more delicate, wistful approach, which to me opens the door to being a romantic songwriter,” he adds.

He says he plays all the old songs fans want to hear although not all of them are personal favorites these days (“Madonna of the Wasps,” perhaps a perfect pop song, is, however, a fave). He likes songs like “Swirling” from Queen Elvis, “I’m Only You” from “Fergmania,” “Autumn is Your Last Chance” from “I Often Dream of Trains” and “Chinese Bones” from “Globe of Frogs.”

“Those sorts of things,” he says. “The kind of more hypnotized songs. The songs where I seem to be staring off in the distance in some way rather than getting upset about something or making a joke out of it. But I’m not really known for that.”

“Balloon Man,” perhaps his biggest radio hit, was not originally intended to be a Robyn Hitchcock song. Kimberley Rew, who was in The Soft Boys, had written “Going Down to Liverpool,” which was covered with great success by The Bangles. “I thought, well, if they’ve done it with Kimberley maybe they could do a song of mine,” he says. He sent off a tape of the tune to the group. He never heard back.

When he signed to A&M, he played a demo for label executives and they loved it. “It became a radio smash.” he says. “It didn’t sell a lot, but did very well on the wireless. I have a very anti-commercial instinct.”

He laughed recalling hearing REM’s “Losing My Religion early in the 40 Watt Club in Athens. “It just sounded like a dirge,” he says. “I thought gentlemen, what have you done? All these minor chords. I shook my head and stared down into my beer. (It was) their international hit. If you’re thinking about having a hit record, don’t bring it to me.”

Hitchcock says as he’s gotten older, the melodies have come more easily and the words often languish. He has plenty of tunes awaiting words. “Maybe melodies appear instantly,” he says. “We never know exactly what suit this stuff comes out of, whether it’s the part of the brain that dreams. But then I think we each have an individual narrative that is going on that is in our subconscious. Things that appear in our dreams. Because my dreams seem to make so little sense. But then life makes no sense. So really it’s perfect.”

He says he wants to just keep on working, keep on producing material. “I’ve always churned out as much as I could,” he says. “That’s my priority while I’m here because I can’t do it afterward.”

He does not buy the idea one age is better than another.

“Are you any more real at 7 than you are at 60?” he asks. “Life is the journey, not the destination. We all know the destination is death, no life. It’s not like maturing is necessarily a good thing. It’s just what happens. Even as a kid I could see artists would get older and mellow out. Some people get angrier with time. I think it’s best to smile as you get older. It gives you a facelift.”

His latest, “The Man Upstairs,” acknowledges the march of time. It’s a mesmerizing collection of five covers and five originals, some older songs that haven’t previously found a home. He opens with s spare take on The Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost in You.” He says he took that 80s sound, the height of artifice, music with shoulder pads, and chiseled away at that and the other covers, which include The Doors’ “Crystal Ship” and neighbor Grant-Lee Phillips “Don’t Look Down.”

“I just wanted to play them really simply,” he says.

The idea to split covers and originals came from producer Joe Boyd, known for his work with Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, 10,000 Maniacs, REM, and dozens of others. It wasn’t the first time they’d worked together. In appearances over the years, Boyd has read from his memoir, Chinese Bicycles, and Hitchcock has sung tunes.

This was their first studio collaboration, though they’d talked about it for years. “We inched towards each other,” he says. Boyd is known for his Brit folkie roots. Hitchcock says he has his own roots. He made a record with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, Nashville neighbors, some years back. But way back when he lived in Cambridge he’d go to the folk club on Saturday nights, where they were into bluegrass. That was where he first heard Gram Parsons. The Egyptians, he says, used to do “Hickory Wind.”

“It’s funny how it all swirls around,” he says.

His legacy?

“I’d like to be made into an app, put on the iPhone 12 or whatever,” he says. “It would produce stuff that was like mine through the ’80s and ’90s. I think it would write something that would be on “Elements of Light.” We are replacing ourselves, whether intended or not, with artificial intelligence. What’s interesting is we’re putting something of ourselves into another form. “

He imagines the new medium will not necessarily know where it comes from. There will be legends about coming from the flesh world. There may be even a few specimens left over in a compound somewhere.

“We’re rather tragically over-achieving homicidal apes,” he says. “Our great legacy will be to translate the fleshly into the mechanical, maybe with the same problems and the same gifts, but without mortality.”

Robyn Hitchcock at the Norfolk Yacht and Country Club, April 7.