What does Nashville mean to you now in a musical sense given that it is often seen as the home of the mainstream?
I realised very soon after my first visit, that Nashville is now much more than just the home of Country Music. It’s fair to say that it really is ‘Music City USA’ as it claims to be, mainly because of the sheer amount of talent that is there and on display in every venue. It’s pretty jaw dropping. Yes, it’s still the home of country music and quite rightly celebrates its amazing musical heritage and tradition, but there is a lot more going on away from Lower Broadway or Music Row. I really have no connection or concept of what is going on with what they now call ‘Mainstream Country Music’, because in many cases I just don’t hear it as country music. It’s can often be soft rock, pop or even hip hop dressed up with a sprinkling of fiddle or banjo. A lot of these ‘mainstream hits’ are written by people who don’t necessarily write ‘country songs’. Nashville is certainly a central hub for the practise of ‘song writing’ and a good song can translate into any genre of music.
Personally, I was attracted to Nashville because of its historical musical legacy through people like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. It’s hard to escape it when you walk around. So, in a musical sense that will always be more important to me. There is also a big resurgence in traditional old timey style country music and songwriters who have that authentic spirit which I’m really attracted to.
How important has been location (and your Welsh upbringing) in your overall musical direction?
It’s difficult to say. I am a very proud Welshman and certainly feel at home in Wales but my musical inspiration has always come from elsewhere. Yes, I love Tom Jones and John Cale but I think it’s fair to say that their inspiration or influences also came from outside of Wales. There is no disputing the power of a good male voice choir or the beauty of a Welsh harp but I never really connected with that music like I did Rock’n’Roll, Country or Soul music. It always felt more direct and immediate. I think it’s very common when you grow up in a small town, wherever it may be, that you aspire to break out and leave. Travelling America in my early twenties certainly opened my eyes and inspired me immensely but I’ve always just tried to follow my gut instincts with song writing and take the songs in whatever musical direction I feel suits them best. You can create your own musical environment via your own music collection. If you surround yourself with the music of a certain style, whatever it may be, then it will inevitably inform and influence the music that you are inclined to create. As the old saying goes, “It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at”.
Did you enjoy the co-writing situation that is fairly common in Nashville? How did it affect the writing?
I did enjoy the process very much. To begin with it came remarkably easy. I think it really depends who you are writing with and how you connect on a personal level. I was fortunate that I felt very comfortable and connected with the other writers (Rick Brantley and Mando Saenz) during the first couple of trips. They were just so easy going and with a little encouragement the songs just clicked into place. I had never written with another person before I went to Nashville but I approached the sessions with an open mind and an impetus to come up with something. You have to be very present and engaged for the process to work, and try to work towards creating something you can both be happy with.
I was just amazed how quickly things can come together when you are both on the same wave length and working together towards the same goal. It wasn’t always that easy. Someone must come up with a seed of an idea first, whether it’s the music or the lyric. But you’ve got to start somewhere. Even if you later go in a different direction and abandon the original idea. Someone has the drive the idea forward and engage the other writer into knocking ideas back and forth. When it’s balanced and positive the process can be very rewarding. It’s only when ideas run thin or stall that it can become a little frustrating. But overall it was a very positive experience and one that I think really helped to develop my craft as a song writer.
Which is the most interesting part of the process for you the lyric writing or the music?
I don’t think I can separate the two. They are both so dependent on one another and benefit from one another. Yes, I often write reams of lyrics before I marry them with music. And I also write instrumental pieces of music before I marry it with lyrics but almost always they will both change and adapt to one another when they come together. And generally, become stronger together.
That direction, through your various albums, has looked at different variations of roots music while retaining a consistent viewpoint. Has that been a fundamental attitude?
I think so. As I mentioned previously a good song can always translate into any genre and I have always just tried to follow my gut instinct regarding where I should take a song. My taste in music is very wide ranging and I really don’t wish to be restricted in any way. I naturally seem to react against the last song I’ve written, so if I write a slow melancholy song, I will almost immediately begin something fast and upbeat next. The contrast is often exhilarating and keeps things interesting. It’s very easy to get stuck in a rut and keep repeating the same process so I need to shake things up and remain inspired to try new ideas. I guess the consistent viewpoint is my voice and my outlook on life. Even when you are writing a character or story driven song which has nothing at all to do with you, it’s hard to resist injecting something of your own viewpoint or attitude in there somewhere.
You recently supported Mavis Staples in Wales. How was that?
It was truly wonderful. A real dream come true. Such an honour and a privilege.
I have such a deep love for Mavis. Her music and her voice have been a source of great comfort and inspiration to me for many, many years. My set itself went well and I had a great response from her audience. I played a mix of the more soul or gospel influenced songs from previous albums as well as a few from the new album. After my set, I bravely knocked on her dressing room door to say hello and she invited me in. So, there I was sitting with the one and only Mavis Staples. Just me and her for 5 or 10 minutes talking about some mutual friends and the new album that she’s just finished recording with Jeff Tweedy, whilst I tried hard not to just gush like a giddy fan. She has always been my favourite female soul singer and I absolutely adore her. She was everything I had hoped and expected her to be. She was warm and welcoming with such amazingly positive energy.
She was so gracious, sweet and kind. I’ll never forget what she said to me. She paid me the compliment of saying, "Boy you sounded great! Your voice is strong! And that was just you up there - you sounded like three people". I was so flattered. It was a moment that I will cherish for the rest of my days.
And then of course Mavis' set was just amazing! Her band were phenomenal.
She filled the room with positive vibrations, love and joy and the crowd worshiped her. The world is just a better place while you are in her company.
Obviously with recent albums like Heart On Fire with the South Austin Horns reflect your interest in soul. Something that has now become something of a musical trend in the last couple of years. Did you foresee that?
Not really. I have always been a big fan of vintage soul music from the 1960’s and to me it’s utterly timeless, which might explain why it still connects with a modern audience so well. The combination of a passionate and soulful voice with a horn section and a good arrangement will always speak to people. To me it’s ‘Feel Good Music’ even when it’s singing of blues and heartbreak. It can just hit you in the gut and then tear your heart out but somehow also feel joyful and uplifting. In my case I had slowly been putting songs to one side for many years, that I felt would benefit from a soul styled arrangement, long before I decided to record ‘Heart On Fire’. A couple of them were written before my first album came out. So, when the opportunity finally presented itself to record with a horn section, I had the material ready to go. Musical trends come and go but good soul music like rock’n’roll will never really die. It’ll always have a place. I never really thought of what I was doing in terms of following any contemporary trends. I just felt that those songs in particular where calling out for that kind of instrumentation and I wanted to follow my gut instinct to try and do them justice.
Are there other artists who you worked with that provided you with a memorable experience?
Yes, quite a few. I’ve been very fortunate to work with or tour with some of my absolute musical heroes. People that I have admired. People that had an important impact or influenced me in some way through listening to their music, long before I met them. Working in the studio with Victoria Williams was certainly a memorable experience. I remember first finding out about Victoria when I was in California in 1993. I had read an article about the tribute album ‘Sweet Relief’ that was being released to raise money for her medical bills after she was diagnosed with MS (Multiple Sclerosis) while on tour with Neil Young. It featured a lot of great acts that I liked, from Lou Reed to Evan Dando, Buffalo Tom, Pearl Jam and more, covering her songs, so I had to check it out. I then bought a few of her earlier albums, and when Loose came out in 1994 I was a big fan. Twelve years or so later, I was invited by a friend in Cardiff to meet Mark Olsen from The Jayhawks as he was looking to find someone with a studio that he could use to record some demos while he was in town.
To try and cut a long story short, I ended up putting a band of local musicians together for Mark to record the demos which went very well. Then a few months later Mark returned to Cardiff, this time with Victoria. I was thrilled to see her walking down my street one morning and to meet her. We recorded another batch of songs (some of which went on to be re-recorded in LA for Marks’ solo album, The Salvation Blues) and at the end of the second day of recording I had the crazy idea of turning my song ‘Bottom Dollar’ into a duet and asked Vic if she would be interested in recording some vocals for me. She was happy to oblige and I was just blown away. A year or so later Vic came back over to record with me again. I took her up to a cottage near Aberystwyth to specifically try and develop some song ideas for a new album of her own. There were lots and lots of ideas flying around that week and we captured some great stuff. On the strength of those demos she was later offered a deal with ‘Honest Jon’s Records’ but as far as I know nothing ever materialised. She is an unique and special singer and song writer. I hope that I helped in some way and that she can deliver a new album sometime in the not too distant future.
There are a few other memorable moments like the first time I opened for John Cale which was a very big deal for me at the time. Touring the UK with Kristin Hersh was huge for me too, as I was such a big fan of Throwing Muses as a teenager and her solo work was such a big inspiration to me when I first started making music. She was just so kind and supportive. I feel privileged to now call her a friend. I don’t want to come across like a name dropper but I have been fortunate enough to tour with some legendary people. I’ll never forget sitting in the dressing room talking about Townes Van Zandt with Steve Earle or talking about Johnny Cash with Billy Joe Shaver or discussing Elvis with Wanda Jackson. It’s pretty insane to think about really, when you revere those people so much, but the biggest lesson I’ve learned from meeting all of these great people is that, away from the stage spotlight, they too are just living and breathing human beings like me or you. They have exceptional talents – yes, but they face their own challenges and have to work as hard as anyone else to sustain their success and continue to produce great work.
As an independent artist how has the musical landscape and the way music is now distributed changed your process?
It hasn’t really changed my process, but then I’m quite old fashioned in my approach to making and releasing music. I’ve always valued the album as a body of work above the single. I do struggle to pick individual songs for a ‘Radio Single’ or a video as I get too attached to them being part of the album. I realise that it is a necessary thing, to try and promote an album but I’m not very comfortable with the process. The digitisation of music and all the various platforms that are available to distribute music does make it easier to get your music out there online but it has also devalued the product so much that it makes it very difficult to get any financial return, as people have become so accustomed to consuming music for free. It now feels like you make an album then battle to try and give it away for free with some vague hope that people may then come and see you play live. Youtube has become such a massive platform because the visual aspect is so powerful. I am guilty of this too. If someone recommends a band or artist to me, the first thing I will do is go and check what they have on Youtube. It’s crazy really. An artist or band toils away for a year or two trying to make the best sounding record that they can and then people just go to Youtube and end up watching and listening to some low quality live recording captured on a mobile phone camera. It’s a great resource for archive recordings though and I use it a lot. I’m conscious of the fact that I need to feed that side of things more.
As an independent artist, these days you have to cover all bases and be a great multitasker. On top of being the song writer, singer, musician, performer, producer, recording and mixing engineer, manager, booking agent, press and radio plugger, and whatever else, it seems that being a good videographer or film maker should be high on the list of priorities now too. I certainly need to work on that area of things and get more quality videos out there.
In these somewhat confused and troubled times how do these events filter into your music?
I think it’s inevitable that they filter into the music. If you care at all it’s hard not to be aware, not to feel emotionally moved or reflect what is going on in the world within the things that you want to say and the music you make. I can’t really claim to have ever been an overtly political or social songwriter but I’ve written a few and I’m sure I’ll write a few more in due course. We are certainly living in very troubled times right now and it’s sad to think that so many of those protest songs from the civil rights movement in the 60’s are still as relevant today as they were then. I’m just glad that Mavis Staples is still alive and kicking and able to sing them whilst also spreading her positive message of love and inspiration.
Are the opportunities to play live more difficult these days and does that mean that you have a reverse situation in that touring the US in that it is usually US artists coming to Europe rather than the other way round. Is offering some scope for you?
It seems that it has become more difficult yes. Venues and pubs are closing down all over the country, for various reasons, and there is a lot of competition for gigs. As an independent artist and your own booking agent you can’t sit back and wait to be offered gigs. You have to keep seeking them out and driving things forward, whether that is in the UK, Europe, America or anywhere else. North America has always been notoriously difficult, firstly to get the work visa to tour and secondly to make any kind of impression. Canada is somewhat more accessible and parts of Europe can be great but Brexit will most likely have a negative effect on UK touring musicians over there. There is always scope but it’s a hard slog sometimes. Some days you dig around trying to find opportunities and it feels like your banging your head against a brick wall. But then every once in a while, you might knock a chunk out of that wall and a ray of light comes shining through. And that makes it all seem worthwhile.
Is the future bright or is it a struggle (the glass full or half full question)?
Oh, it’s a struggle alright, but the future is bright too. I’ve always regarded myself as something of a cynical-optimist. Prepared for disappointment but always hoping for the best. Sometimes the power of positive thinking does seem to work. It’s hard to stay optimistic sometimes and I am prone to getting stuck in a rut from time to time, but in general I feel tremendously fortunate and grateful to live the life that I live. I have so much to be thankful for. I may not sell as many albums as I’d like, or play to as many people as I’d like, but I still live for it. And I still love writing songs, recording music and performing.
You still love making music, given you continue to release albums, is it a necessity for you?
Yes. It may sound cliched but the creative process really is its own reward. There is a great feeling of accomplishment when you create something out of nothing or turn a negative emotion into something positive. It’s often like taking a weight off your shoulders or getting something out of your system so that you can look at it in a more objective manner. It can be very therapeutic or cathartic.
You can grow bitter or grow better. I often console myself if an album doesn’t achieve what I might think it should, by telling myself that the next one will be better. I think it’s healthy to always aspire to improve and develop your abilities. And with music and song-writing you never stop learning. There are always areas that you can work on, and that feeds your drive to move forward, improve and hopefully make better records. Playing live is rewarding too and necessary to gauge the quality of the work you’ve created. To see the reaction to songs and find out if they sink or swim. It also feeds the ego a little, helps to boost your confidence and provide some reassurance that you aren’t completely misguided or delusional.
It’s a long time since you played in Ireland. Any plans to return?
Yes, it’s been far too long since I was last over there on tour opening for The Handsome Family in 2009. I would love to come back and play some shows, especially the Kilkenny Rhythm & Roots Festival which people keep telling me is the greatest. I really enjoyed playing at Cleere’s when I was last there. The people were amazing and I’d love to return. I need to make some serious plans to get back over there to play especially with this new album out now. Of course, it would be great if I can get on another tour with a more established act to ensure a good crowd, but I just need to get a few gigs of my own organised and get over there again. It’s such a beautiful country to tour around and always a great experience to play to such passionate music lovers. I’ll keep you posted.
Interview by Stephen Rapid