Country singer and songwriter Slaid Cleaves has been a regular visitor to the UK since first touring here fifteen years ago. His latest European tour, which spread through most of September and October, is the first since the release of his tenth album, 'Still Fighting the War'.

It is his first album since 'Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away', which came out in 2009. Fans of Slaid's earlier records will recognise his new disc's combination of lovelorn ballads ('Without Her', 'I Bet She Does') and working class folk songs ('Rust Belt Fields', 'Welding Burns'), while the title track's tale of an army veteran's struggle to come to terms with life back at home would have slot neatly on to any of his albums.

This album, however, showcases a more playful side to Cleaves' songwriting that will be familiar to anyone who has seen his live performances, but is less often found on record. Indeed, this record has most in common with 'Sorrow and Smoke', the double-disc live album Cleaves released in 2011.

On that record, Cleaves performed two covers of songs by Don Walser, a country and western singer and yodeller. Walser had been a regular on the Texas music scene since the 1950s, playing on bills alongside Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash, eventually earning the nickname the 'Pavarotti of the Plains'.

Yet, having refused to move to Nashville, Walser was only able to become a full time musician in 1994, and retired due to ill health less than a decade later. Slaid Cleaves moved to Austin, Texas in the early 1990s, and Walser was the first singer he saw play live after his move. On his new album, he pays tribute to his friend, who died in 2006, on 'God's Own Yodeller' which was the highlight of a gig at the Slaughtered Lamb in London in September where Pennyblackmusic both watched him perform and also interviewed him.

Though Cleaves usually plays solo when touring the UK, he was accompanied at the Slaughtered Lamb by Wayne 'Chojo' Jacques, a fiddle and mandolin player. Chojo had flown in that day, and was due to play with Slaid for the next eleven dates. He is one of a number of people Slaid regularly collaborates with – indeed, on each of his albums, at least half the songs tend to be co-written with other songwriters.

One of his most regular co-writers is Rod Picott, with whom he first played in a garage band (the Magic Rats) as a teenager. Having named their first band after a line from of his songs, their mutual admiration for Bruce Springsteen survives to this day. Their co-writes on Cleaves' new album both turn a weary eye to the plight of America's blue collar working class, and would both have fitted in neatly on Springsteen's last album.

Shortly before Cleaves played his two-part, hundred minute set in the cosy (but hot) basement bar of the Slaughtered Lamb, he sat down and answered my questions.

I began by asking how he had found the reaction to his new album, which was released in June. He told me that it has had the best reviews in the media of any album he has released. “My fans – old fans – really seem to be enjoying it, and I'm starting to get a little trickle of new people,” he added. “That's the most exciting thing, when people start to hear about it through 'the buzz' and start coming to shows.”


PB I know you have played here at the Slaughtered Lamb before. Do you find that a large portion of your audience are loyal fans that will come back?

SC: Yeah, I get a lot of fans who have been coming for ten or twelve years. It's really amazing – they found me during the 'Broke Down' era, in 2000, that's when I got much of my airplay. I got some BBC airplay, and I got some airplay in the States, and I've been coasting on that for a long time (Laughs).

PB: You had done several cassettes – I know that you have reissued some of those on CD since – and then 'No Angel Knows' was your first full release in 1997. But is it fair to say that 'Broke Down' was the breakthrough where you became better known?

SC: Yes, 'No Angel Knows' was my first record on a label, and they had a European office, so they helped bring me over for my first tour in 1998. I was a support act for Ray Wylie Hubbard. So, they showed me the ropes, and then a couple of years later when 'Broke Down' came out it was picked up by the BBC. Bob Harris was a big champion of mine, and I even got to play on the Johnnie Walker show at drive time once.

It was amazing what difference that made – just that one play. I got to play two songs on the Johnnie Walker show. We were on a tour, and sixty people were coming to the shows, and then the next few nights, after we'd been on that show, all of a sudden ninety people were coming.

PB: I've read that you will often write albums where, once you have a few songs, the other tracks begin to fit around a theme...

SC: That is usually how I write. I wrote this one a little differently. When I started writing this batch of songs, I was wondering if albums would still exist by the time I recorded them. Albums are kind of going downhill – I don't listen to albums like I used to anymore. So, I thought that maybe this was my chance to just do each song for itself.

That's how I approached the writing. I didn't think about a theme when I was writing, or even when I was recording them. I wrote seventeen songs, and recorded sixteen of them, and I decided that I would sort them out into an album once it was done. I knew that sixteen was too many for an album.

In the end, I think there are two themes to the album. It starts on a heavy theme, and then it gets more light-hearted, and then it returns to the heavy theme at the end. I like to think that this album has more variety than previous albums. It is not so based on a theme. It's got some eclecticism to it.

PB: One of my favourite songs on the album is 'God's Own Yodeller', which is about Don Walser. I know that when you were on Otis Gibbs' 'Thanks for Giving a Damn' podcast, you told the story of when you first saw Don Walser perform, soon after you first moved to Texas...

SC: Oh, I love that podcast! Do you listen to it all the time?

PB: I was a bit late listening to it when he first started doing them. He played at this venue earlier this year, and was talking about the podcast then. So I had to go back and catch up then. The podcast he did with you was already out at that point.

SC: And he knows so many cool people. I'm always wondering when he is going to run out of cool people that he actually knows...

Don Walser was one of the firs acts that I came across when I moved from Austin to Maine, and it just blew my mind because he did something that just don't see where I grew up. Something you only see in Texas – that's why I moved to Texas, to witness that music in its indigenous location. He was a West Texan yodelling, country and western singer. He used to say, “We do Top 40 country – that's the top country songs in the 1940s.” Very traditional, and very proud of the musical tradition that he came out of, and very suspicious of newer forms of music. And very concerned about keeping alive his version of country.

I think that's what our bond was – I looked up to him as a master yodeller and songwriter and singer, and he looked at me as being the young whippersnapper that is going to keep his music alive as he fades out. Because he was in his 60s when I met him in my late 20s, and he passed away about seven years ago. He told me many times how much he appreciated me carrying on his music, and learning his songs.

PB: And you perform his songs regularly still?

SC: Yes. I learned five or six of his songs in the 1990s, and now, in the past five or six years, almost every single night at do at least one of his songs.

PB: You said that you don't get much yodelling outside of Texas, but in Britain, you get none at all. When you started playing music you were listening to Springsteen, the Pogues... rock music. At what point did you start performing authentic country music, and yodelling music?

SC: In the early 1980s, I was into the Clash and into Springsteen. I heard both Joe Strummer and Bruce Springsteen talk about Woody Guthrie, so I doubled back to Woody Guthrie. And then also Bruce Springsteen would talk about Hank Williams, so I literally dug my dad's Hank Williams records out of the attic.

I was really enthralled by the starkness, and the beauty, and the songwriting mastery of the Hank Williams singles that we had. I was starting to busk at that time, so I thought it would be fun to learn some of those Hank Williams yodelling songs. I would practice in the car on the way to the job I had then. I would have the windows rolled up, so no-one could hear, because its a pretty harsh sound when you are first learning how to yodel. So I learned rudimentary yodelling from listening to Hank Williams, and I was really into doing that.

But I learned some more tricky, sophisticated yodelling from Don Walser. He taught me those songs himself actually. I would approach him myself after his shows, after he had shaken people's hands and signed autographs, and I would say, “Don, I'm trying to learn this song of yours, but it is so fast, and I can't really process it, so can you sing it slowly to me?” And he would.

Don could sing – and he could yodel – just like he could talk. I really have to work myself up to it. It was like a natural, physical thing for him. It was bizarre, amazing. So he could sing the song slowly for me, until I could figure it out, and then I would go home and practice it.

PB: It seems like there was a natural progression for you from when you were busking, then playing at open mic shows, then playing your own shows, until you were releasing records and music had become your career. Was there ever a distinct point where you decided that music would be what you did as your main occupation?

SC: It was a gradual process, with stops and starts and setbacks. I thought, “I'd really like to do this”, but I didn't always have enough confidence to totally believe that I'd be able to. I went from busking, to open mics and playing in bars.

After a couple of years of that, I had worked up a bar circuit in Maine, where I could support myself. That seemed like a really big thing at that point – it was a very meagre living, but I was only 23 and I didn't need much. It was a real thrill to think, “Hey, they said it couldn't be done, but I'm supporting myself and paying my rent from playing music in bars.”

But, having said that, it was a very meagre living, and after a while, I got burned out playing three-hour bar gigs every night for noisy crowds. So the next step was to trying to build a real career, and that necessitated moving down to Austin, where there was a good industry infrastructure, and there were a lot of musicians that I could look up to, learn from and then tour with.

There were eight, very lean, struggling years down there, where – you know – ten or twelve years after I started this career, I was beginning to think that maybe I wouldn't make it, and I would have to find a real career and get a job, which was horrifying and scary, because I have no other skills! I have a degree in philosophy, but it's pretty hard to find a job with that.

It was only in 2000, when I started to get airplay on the BBC, where my crowd went from a handful of people in a few cities, to 90-100 people in many, many cities. And that turned the tide, and I could think, “Okay, I have a career now”.

PB: And now you have released a long line of albums. I know you said earlier that the latest album you've released has enjoyed your best reviews, but do any of your other albums particularly stand out?

SC: Well, 'Broke Down' was the pivotal one. The song 'Broke Down' was the one that got on the radio, and even to this day, at shows people want to hear all the songs of that record, thirteen years after it was released. It's a little frustrating, because I have written lots of songs since then, and I think some are even a little better than the 'Broke Down' era songs. But, I have to admit that the 'Broke Down' record was written and produced in a very dark period where I was – as I said just now – contemplating not being able to make music and make a living, and I think that desperation came into those songs, and made them poignant. I think that is why that albums resonates with people to this day.

PB: Another album that I think stands out is your live album, 'Sorrow and Smoke', which came out in 2011. That's probably a fan favourite now, isn't it?

SC: I love the way that came out. It's a really fun set of songs, and I love the way the packaging came out – you get the two beer coasters inside the packaging. That album is basically a 'greatest hits', and it came out well – it has a casual atmosphere of beer bottles clinking and people talking back to me. I think the crowd that were there had a good time, and I think the recording will stand the test of time.

PB: Did you know it would be a live album when you recorded it?

SC: Yeah, we set it up especially. I have a closet full of live tapes that people had sent me, ones that the sound engineers had recorded. I just did not have the fortitude to sit down and listen to them all again to find the best one. So, I decided to record a show, and to make it a special show, do it in a special place.

The Horseshoe Lounge where we recorded it doesn't normally have live music. It normally has a jukebox and a pool table. I had mentioned it in a couple of songs, so I persuaded the owners to make it a music venue for one night, and we did a last minute Facebook invite, and did the gig. It was a special gig, in a special place.

PB: I didn't know that it wasn't normally a venue. I knew you had written songs about it, but had always assumed it was somewhere you played at...

SC: Yeah, people often assume that it was my regular hometown gig. But, no, it was a one-off.

PB: It may be a complete coincidence, but it feels to me like 'Just Starting the War' is a just a tad looser – not in a bad way, but in the sense of sounding slightly closer to the live performance. I wondered if having had a well-received live album was part of that.

SC: Well, I worked with different producers on this album, so that may have something to do with it. My primary producer this time was Scrappy Jud Newcomb, who is a really soulful 'go with the flow' kind of producer. Whereas, on my other albums, Gurf Morlix, who is a dear friend and a great producer, worked very differently. He was very precise, not fussy, but very clear about what he wants to do and very elegant, not as loose. Working with Scrappy, and the band that he brought in, had a little bit more swagger to it.

PB: When you are recording, how much space fo you give those collaborators. Do you have clear ideas of how you want parts to sound – or do you just listen to what people come up with?

SC: It is more of the latter. I don't have good production skills myself (Laughs). It just seems like a blank slate. I put all my effort into the words, the syllables, the rhythm, the metre, the rhyme, the story, the melody, the chord changes – that's what I concentrate on. Once I have that voice and guitar demo done, I may have a few general ideas for the arrangement, but generally, people like Gurf and Scrappy, they know what a song needs and they know how to put it together. They are professionals who done so many records, so on those rare occasions when something doesn't sound right to me, they will try something else until it sounds right.

PB: Do you enjoy being in the studio? I know some people find it stressful.

SC: I didn't always useg to, but they are becoming more enjoyable. Making records with Gurf was easy, because he is such a master, and you know you are in good hands. But there was something a little bit easier about the most recent record. Maybe it's because I have a little bit more confidence to know my role, and I can just let the producers get on with it.

PB: You've tended to have gaps of two or three years between each album, so I imagine you aren't really thinking about the next one yet. But do you have any particular plans for the next few years?

SC: There's no new plan. I normally tour as much as I can for a year or eighteen months after an album is released, and then in the winter months, I normally have a lighter touring schedule, and then I set aside little three or four day periods each month for several months, where I borrow a friend's guest house – so I can get away from the chores, from the internet and TV – and then I poke away on songs.

Sometimes songs come, sometimes they don't. I have been through phases of blank-page writer's block, and now I don't worry about that, because I know that I have been there before and something will always come. I don't see any way to change my MO now, until it ever stops working.

PB: It seems to be going well enough at the moment...

SC: Yeah, it can be hard. Most people don't tour for 120 days of the year, and sometimes it can be hard to find time for songwriting. I have to carve those times out, because it can take a long time to write a good song.

PB: One last thing I wanted to ask about – as someone who has now come and performed in the UK regularly for a long time – was your experience of playing here. We do have quite a large audience for country music. If you look outside at the posters of all the people who are playing in this exact venue in the next month, I'm sure you will see lots of names of people you recognise. But, I wonder if there is a difference for you, especially when you are playing traditional country music and yodelling. There will be British people who have a go at imitating those styles, but its not “our” music in the way it is when you play at home.

SC: There are differences, for sure. It is really odd that, in the States, when I yodel, people will immediately cheer and applause after every yodel. Whereas here, people will just nod. I'm used to those little few seconds of applause where I can catch my breath after every yodel.

Occasionally, I see people trying a little too hard to 'be country', with their tipped lapels, Western Shirts and pony tails. They don't quite look right.

But those are only small differences. For the most part, the crowds are the same – people who love music, and know my songs. I feel really fortunate to have built up a crowd that comes and wants to listen. I don't have a party crowd, although some crowds are more rowdy – in a good way – depending on what region of England you are in. That's true in the States as well. Down South they are 'yee-ha' and up North in New England, they are very prim and polite. And I'm very lucky with my crowd, everywhere I go.

PB: Thank you.











Related Links:



Commenting On: Interview - Slaid Cleaves








ie London, England

tick box before submitting comment
 


First Previous Next Last