Clay Parker and Jodi James Interview

Having abandoned solo careers to work as a duo, Clay Parker and Jodi Jones discovered at an early stage that their ability to co-write far outweighed their talent for writing individually. The latest result of their collaborations is the delightful recording The Lonesomest Sound That Can Sound, released earlier this year to glowing industry reviews. No Depression, Rolling Stone Country, The Bluegrass Situation and our good selves being among many publications that were suitably enthralled by the album.  Because of their hectic touring schedule, the album took quite a while to write but was recorded in one days sitting as detailed by Clay Parker, when he recently took time out to park the tour bus and chat with Lonesome Highway.

Your recently released album The Lonesomest Sound That Can Sound made a hugely positive impression on me when I was given it to review. Despite being prolific co-writers, the album was created over an extended period of time, engaging a variety of engineers and studios. Was this a conscious decision or simply logistics?

We’re on the road a lot. So, what made sense both economically and logistically at the time was to record in layers. It certainly wasn’t the ideal way to make a record, and for the last couple of years, we’ve been piecing together a studio of our own that functions in the way that we want to make records going into the future. But The Lonesomest Sound That Can Sound album began when we found ourselves with a quickly put-together day session at a studio in Nashville where we recorded 12 songs in about 8 hours - just the two of us. We sat on those recordings for a while and even considered releasing them as is. But somewhere along the way, we decided that we’d like to hear some additional instrumentation mixed in. So, we had some of our favourite hometown musicians gather at a dear friend’s studio in Baton Rouge, and we tracked everything else in about 5 days.

Despite this, there is a definite consistency about the recording both musically and thematically. Was this difficult to achieve given the recording process?

No, I wouldn’t say so. Even though the tracking process was spread out over time, the other guys did their thing in 1 or 2 takes per song; and in that way, it was still treated like a live recording where most of the decisions were made in the moment. I think consistency just presented itself - we didn’t really have to strive for it.

There is also an air of calmness and tranquillity across the album. Was this an atmosphere you consciously set out to create or a reflection of your collective personalities?

We’re pretty calm and tranquil people, I suppose. But more than that, we like the sound of space and air and dynamics in most of the songs we play. It’s something we try to achieve when we play live, and that idea sort of dictates how we like to record and mix. 

The last track Killin’ Floorparticularly stands out for me. It weighs in at a hefty twelve minutes plus, yet does not seem a second too long. Tell me about the song and your decision on its length?

Killin’ Floor just sort of fell out one night. One verse was written to the particular melody and tempo, and then verses just kept piling up; but we didn’t really pay much attention to its length while writing it. We ended up printing out the few pages of lyrics, clipping out each verse, and moving them around on the floor until we agreed on the final order.When we recorded it, we told the engineer that we’d only do one take of it because of its length. There are flubs all over the place, and we weren’t sure it would make it on the record. But eventually, we recognized it as a suitable book end to the album.

The album has already been receiving great reviews, even with your relatively low profile. How difficult is it to maintain that momentum and get airplay on radio stations that support Americana and (genuine) country music?

That’s a good question (laugh)! There’s surely not a shortage of great music coming out - it’s a big pond with a lot of big fish. We were fortunate to meet some fine folks who specialize in that stuff - who get records from bands like us to some well-known publications - and they really got behind this record. But for us, the indispensable part of what we do is touring

You’ve enduringly created your fan base by constantly touring, self-managing, attracting both punters and industry people. Was this a game plan or did it simply develop when you commenced touring as a duo?

We like the DIY-as-much-as-possible approach to nearly everything - from fixing broken gear to making our own merchandise. So, it’s just naturally what we fall into. 

I’m interested in your writing process as co-writers. Have you a particular trusted format and how different is writing songs to be performed as duets rather than individually?

One of us usually comes up with a musical and lyrical phrase of some sort. We’ll typically get together and shift a couple of words or add/take away a chord or something like that, then we’ll separate for a while and work independently of one another. The interesting thing that happens is that we usually end up working in the same direction - kind of like walking on a parallel path with someone. So, by the time we get back together, we’re usually still on the same page. We take the best ideas and phrases, thread them together, then figure out how it’s best sung. Many of our songs wind up as full duets, and that’s probably the main difference in writing for the duo as opposed to solo work. It stretches what you can do in terms of melody and harmony where the individual parts can weave back and forth.

You were approached to perform in Ethan Hawke’s soon to be released Blaze Foley biopic, Blaze. How did that come about?

Ethan and his crew were scoping out locations to film around a small town in south Louisiana where we play fairly often. They were also looking for local musicians for a few scenes, and our names came up in conversation. A few days later, we had an email from him - which kind of stunned us - and he invited us to join them for about three days of shooting. That was an easy “yes” for us, being that we’re both big fans of Blaze’s music and Ethan’s work. He is an incredible collaborator, but he also has a unique way of unfolding his visions for everyone in the room to become a part of. It was fascinating to watch.We just had a couple of small parts in the movie, and count ourselves fortunate to be involved. We actually just saw it a couple of weeks ago in Austin, and it was great. So great.

Comparisons have been made, not least by myself, of the likeness of yourselves to Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. Are they artists that have influenced yourselves and do you actually listen to much music while touring?

We do listen to a lot of music -- almost all the time. In our tour van, because a friend gifted us with a subscription to Sirius radio, we’ve been listening mostly to Bruce Springsteen and the Grateful Dead (laugh). Otherwise, it’s mostly music from the past… blues, old soulful country, songwriters. And of course, our friends’ records. Any music with guts, that’s what we gravitate towards.As for Welch/Rawlings, we love their music. Somewhere along the way, they shifted the paradigm of what male/female duos can be. While many of those existed before (and after) them, their unique sound blended with a deep and evolving translation of the vernacular of American folk music was a complete game-changer. And now, as a duo ourselves, you can’t un-hear that stuff just like you can’t un-hear the Beatles or the Everly Brothers. So, the comparison is certainly a fair one, and one that makes us feel at home within the tradition of the duet sound.

What other artists have most influenced you and pointed you in the musical direction you follow?

Between the two of us, we probably share the most appreciation for the music of John Prine and Bob Dylan. It’s visual music that often happens in scenes. There’s always more than one thing going on. I suppose that’s the kind of work we look to. 

Have you a game plan going forward or do you intend just continuing what you are currently doing?

Well, we never want to get too comfortable staying in one place or doing one thing. We’re constantly trying to evolve and dig deeper into something, whether that’s writing new music or piecing our studio together or booking shows or whatever. But our basic modus operandi will remain intact, and we’ll continue putting out records and touring as a duo.

Interview by Declan Culliton