Damien Rice: My Favorite Faded Fantasy

[Legacy Content]

Release Date: November 10, 2014

It’s hard to be very critical when one of your favorite artists only releases 3 albums in 11 years – this one after an 8-year hiatus. So, basically, Damien Rice is the Justin Timberlake of Irish singer-songwriters.

I first discovered Damien Rice while working at Starbucks back when O was released. We had “The Blower’s Daughter,” “Cannonball,” “Delicate,” and “Volcano” all in heavy rotation. Of course, I was only vaguely aware of this until a co-worker specifically called it out. Once I got my hands on that record, though, I was a huge fan. It would be another 3 years before he would release 2006’s 9 Crimes, which at times surpassed while at other points was far inferior to its predecessor. Beyond these two records, however, we’ve had little more than some B-sides, singles, and live recordings to hold us over.

So, after an extended, self-imposed exile Rice returns with eight new tracks produced by the legendary Rick Rubin (who has guided many a beloved artist back to the studio after years of silence). And while eight tracks doesn’t seem like much, I was pleased to see all of them clock in at over 4 minutes, with an 8:09 and 9:33 in there for good measure.

My Favourite Faded Fantasy opens hauntingly enough with the title-track, though it is a gentler introduction than Rice’s previous efforts. Moving into It Takes a Lot to Know a Man,” it become clear that we are listening to the character development of the protagonist whose story began all those years ago on O: older, wiser, more forlorn and less emphatic than he was on 9 Crimes.

“I Don’t Want to Change You” is a seemingly sweet (and thankfully more upbeat) change of pace; however, tucked within its sentimentality is a strong dose of navel-gazing self-pity. It isn’t until “Trusty and True” that things seem to look up for our hero. On it, Rice seems to lift himself up from his pit of despair on the angelic wings of choir. In fact, it is one of the few uses of additional vocalists on the entire album. The track itself begins to feel like a gasp of air for the listener, as well, as the singer finally realizes that “you can’t take back / what is done, what is passed” and finally invites us to “come, come alone / come with fear / come with love / come however you are / just come.”

Rubin’s production on this record is unimpeachable. While he’s never distanced himself too far from the hip hop that he cut his teeth on, he’s one-of-a-kind in what he has offered artists like Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, and what he offers here to Damien Rice. It’s an unadulterated presentation of the artist for who he is, without the pomp and circumstance commonly found in today’s market. In fact, somewhat ironically, Rubin puts his stamp on a record like this by intentionally not putting his stamp on anything.

While there are a few moments of typical Damien Rice tropes (i.e. layered vocals, pianos, and strings), the album is noticeably missing the balancing vocals previously provided by Rice’s former partner Lisa Hannigan. The smaller number of songs helps to hide this, but Hannigan’s vocals were so much a part of “Damien Rice” the artist that it almost feels like Rice is “going solo” here for the first time in his career. That doesn’t make for a bad record, it’s just not quite the same – in the same way that Glen Hansard’s work sans Marketa Irglova lacks a certain something.

Finally, for such a well-liked and critically heralded artist, I must say that this album is not for everyone. In fact, much like the third act in a movie trilogy, it might be hard to come in here without deeply knowing parts one and two (O and 9 Crimes, respectively). Long time fans may feel a bit let down as the record starts, but will end the album filled up and hopeful… Hopeful that it won’t be another 8 years before we hear from Damien Rice again.

Film :: Ragamuffin

A few admissions before we start: 1) I’m a sucker for musician biopics, whether the big screen style of Walk the Line or the made for TV Temptations miniseries, 2) I like Rich Mullins – I was never a huge fan, but grew to enjoy his music after his death in 1997.

For those who don’t know, Rich Mullins was a Contemporary Christian singer/songwriter from the 80s/90s. He got his start allowing artists like Amy Grant to record his songs, some of which went on to become big hits. This earned him the opportunity to record and perform his own music touring at first with the likes of Ms. Grant and eventually on his own. The music community was stunned by the news of a car wreck that took Mullins’ life and left collaborator Mitch McVicker seriously injured. Rich was perhaps best known for his song “Awesome God”.

Ragamuffin: The True Story of Rich Mullins offers a peek behind the curtain at this legendary artist. It takes a strong cue from its subject, Mullins, and sets a new precedent for Christian film. Daringly authentic, its wealth of “damn”s in the first 5 minutes will probably turn off most church-going audiences. The cinematography, however, is so gorgeous that (but for its content) you wouldn’t even think it to be a so-called “Christian” film. Other religious filmmakers should take note of the massive effect of investing time and finances in presentation.

The film doesn’t try to gloss over Mullins’ shortcomings. As an adult, he spends much of the film drunk or hungover, smoking, cursing, or fighting his own depression. While some of the artist’s most vocal fans may be angered or turned off by this – I found it to be a quite welcomed change from the typical fare. However, pairing the darkness of the film with Mullins’ personal brokenness and anti-fundamentalist theology could mean that there may only be a small audience that will really embrace this film.

Being something of a literalist, I spent a good chunk of the film trying to figure out who certain people were – or who they were intended to represent – that is, other collaborators. But eventually the film sucked me in enough to allow for some fuzzing of identities. If I do have one beef with the storytelling, though, it is in the poor portrayal of time’s passing. Rich (as played by Mark Koch) doesn’t seem to age a day from the start of college to his death. His hairstyle may change (inexplicably) from one scene to another, but the passage of time is difficult to track. Further, Rich’s 10-year-long relationship with his one-time fiancé seems to last no more than a year on screen, but then it’s just really hard to tell.

The acting is solid, but suffers from a poorly written script. Most of the dialog comes out clunky and perhaps forced. The only exception to this seems to be the mid-concert monologues delivered by Koch. Oddly enough, these segments appear to be direct quotations from Mullins himself – many coming directly from the well-known Live in Lufkin recording made months before the artist’s death. (Scenes from this recording are featured in the closing credits). The actors, most relatively unknown, work with what they are given and craft a great narrative in-spite of the dialogue.

In the end, this movie deeply affected me, but it’s not really something that I can put into words. Rich’s story and his theology hit all the right notes at the right time to create a significant impact. Despite his situation deep within the subculture of commercial Christianity, Mullins has something to say to everyone from the most devout to the most dejected. In short, there’s something for everyone here, if you’re willing to give it a try.

The film has just completed it’s college screening tour. It is available now at Walmart and will be in Christian bookstores this summer.

Twin Forks: EP

Release Date: Sept 17, 2013

Chris Carrabba and company (Suzie Zeldin, Jonathan Clark, and Ben Homola) are back with the official debut EP from their band Twin Forks – you may remember that they released a promotional “Tour EP vol. 1” earlier in the year. This release contains two of the previously released songs, along with 3 more originals and continues to define the band as bigger than its genre and more than the sum of its parts.

I’m going to keep this fairly brief, but there is a much bigger story to be told. Yesterday I had the chance to speak with Chris Carrabba, so check back tomorrow to dive a little deeper.

The album is bookended by the previously released material “Back to You” and “Scraping Up the Pieces.” It’s hard to be sure, but it sounds to me like these songs were re-mixed and re-mastered, but not re-recorded from their previous iterations. There are some noticeable enhancements, particularly the intro clapping on “Back to You” and opening cymbal crashes and vocal enhancement on “Scraping Up the Pieces,” but the performances sound the same.

Something We Just Know: To me, this is the most “Dashboard Confessional-sounding” song the band has released. (For the uninitiated, Twin Forks lead singer Carrabba is the man behind the long-running emo band Dashboard Confessional.) The arrangement begins very simply and quickly begins to layer on instruments and vocals. The choral effect created by the harmonies really makes this song.

Cross My Mind: Released last week via an official video, “Cross My Mind” almost sounds like it was made to be the soundtrack to a laundry commercial. There’s so much sunshine and joy in the melody that you can’t help but want to get outside and run in the meadow. Oddly the music element kind of stands at odds with the lyrics which are filled with longing, nostalgia, and maybe a little bit of regret.

Can’t Be Broken: This song seems to have the most traditional “folk/Americana” feel of all the material that we’ve heard thus far. Bouncing verses give way to traditional, bluegrass, “boom-chuk” choruses followed by harmonized vocal runs. The track reaches its heights in the bridge when Carrabba pushes into his upper vocal register and stretches his voice in that way we all love.

All in all, the Twin Forks EP is a satisfying listen. Hearing the band play, you know that they are more interested in having fun together and producing quality music than they are in pandering to radio or bending to the will of the genre. You’ll hear moments of inspiration, excitement and delight throughout the record as the band actually enjoys what they are doing. It usually takes years for an artist to achieve that freedom, so it’s great to see veteran artists trying something new without having to “play the game” of the music business.

The band is heading out on tour today and will be on the road through mid-December. They have a full-length album that should be making its way to us early next year and I have it on good authority that they may be releasing some more free cover song downloads in the coming weeks – don’t miss their cover of Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light” available at American Songwriter.

Derek Webb: I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry, & I Love You

Release Date: Sept. 3, 2013

I’ve gone down a number of roads already as it relates to this record. If you’d like to read a more “traditional” review, I would point you to what I wrote for FaithVillage.com

When it comes to art criticism, there are so many layers that you have to look at and music in particular is a peculiar beast. There’s the song itself – melody and lyrics. But beyond that, you have to look at production choices and instrumental arrangements. And I, for one, hate to pull a song out of its given context so then you’re looking at a song’s place on an album and the album as a whole. And even if you wade deeply into all of that, there’s still the caveat of authorial intent – both in what they meant the song to be and how they meant for you to experience it.

Derek has addressed really all of these concerns pretty explicitly (much of which you can learn about in the interview I conducted with him several weeks ago).

With all of that in mind, I have to say that I love these songs, but this is not my favorite Derek Webb record. I’ve said before that I really want to hear a “sonically homogenous” record – that is, all the songs having the same general tone. You hear a wide range of influence here from U2 (“I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You”) to Bob Dylan (“Heavy”) all the way to Marty Robbins (“The Vow”). In the same way, many of the songs harken back to earlier Webb albums – “Lover Part 3” (She Must and Shall Go Free), “Closer Than You Think” (The Ringing Bell), “Everything Will Change” (Mockingbird), “Heavy” (Ctrl).

I’ll never disrespect an artist for making art and going at it with a very thought-out intentionality. It’s clear that Webb is saying something with these choices. At it’s most simple, I think that message is two-fold: “This is who I am” and “We have more in common than you might think”. And the album clearly succeeds at this. My only issue here is my own personal preference. When an album makes big tonal leaps from song to song, it leaves me off balance, not knowing what to expect next. For me, this makes it harder to dig into the meat of the lyrics because I spend the first half of the song trying to regain my balance.

Fortunately, Derek has offered a collection of acoustic videos with accompanying commentary intros that really cut to the heart of the songs. For me, these tracks offer a purity of experience that allow the listener to dig into the multiple layers of meaning found in most of the tracks on the album. They are closer to the Derek Webb that I grew up with and they offer a common tone to songs that are so disparate on the record.

Beyond the artistic talk lies the true message at the heart of the record. On one hand it may be seen as Webb’s self-indictment and renewed commitment to live and love rightly. Yet, it may be seen as invitation for us all to examine ourselves and accompany him on the journey. As such, there is really no better way to summarize Webb’s 20 year career. Ever the agitator, he has always looked at things from a slightly different perspective, poked the proverbial “bear”,and  offered himself as the scapegoat so that his listeners may have the opportunity to find their own voice.

There are few artists that have been a part of my life as long as Derek Webb has. There are even fewer who have offered the kind of message that has effected my view of the world in the same way that he has. It’s for that reason that I have to look at this album as more than just a collection of songs. For me, Webb’s work has always said, “Here’s what’s next”, in terms of the way I look at the world – and the vision that he has presented here suggests an amazing journey ahead.

Charlotte Church: Three

Release Date: August 19, 2013

THREE is part of a set of 5 EPs that Charlotte is in the process of releasing. Previous Reviews: ONE and TWO

I’ve talked at length about Charlotte’s new music and a bit about how she got there, so I won’t rehash all of that here. I was absolutely floored by her TWO EP earlier this year and became and instant fan. That record is pretty serious art/alt rock and (having not heard ONE) it set something of an expectation for me. So, when she released the track “I Can Dream” (from THREE) about a month ago, I was immediately taken aback. This was not what I was expecting.

Once I got my hands on the entire record, I remained surprised – not hearing what I would have expected as a followup to TWO. But by the time I finished my first listen-through it had become an immediate favorite and I’m still playing it sometimes multiple times each day.

With an EP I would typically offer up a track-by-track evaluation, but this record renders that approach obsolete. Tracks bleed from one into another and 26 minutes feels like 10 as you lose yourself in a holistic, engulfing experience. The album artwork absolutely captures the fluid aesthetic of the entire record as seen in the video for the track “Water Tower“.

While I wouldn’t consider it the strongest track on the album, “Water Tower” is a great indicator for the record. It showcases everything that makes Charlotte (and her band’s) music what it is. Restraint, subtlety, power, creativity. It’s all there on this track.

In my opinion, the strongest track on the record is “Magician’s Assistant“. Placed squarely in the center of the record, this song sort-of sneaks up on you with another subtle beginning giving way to impassioned conclusion. The composition reminds me a lot of the modular songwriting that Brian Wilson employed on his magnum opus SMiLE. Seemingly dichotomous choruses, verses and instrumental portions meld together brilliantly and take the listener on an unbelievable journey.

One of the tricks with producing such tonally rich music is finding a way to bring the same soul to a variety of performances of that music. While I can’t wait to see some live full-band performance video, for now I’m making due with a recent in-studio acoustic performance of “Like a Fool” from BBC2 radio (@ 3:50 below). Such a performance only goes to disprove any naysayers about what this artist has become. Does she demand some level of attention based on name alone? Certainly. But this new career (as discussed in the interview below) is a team effort built on solid songwriting, fantastic musicianship, and incomparable vocals. That much should be undeniable.

One of the only drawbacks of this album is that it differs so much from even Charlotte’s other recent work. While different sounds are going to connect with a variety of audiences differently, I wouldn’t be surprised if this one has less of an immediate impact as either ONE or TWO. But, then, isn’t that true of so many great records? After all, it took 40 years for Wilson to get SMiLE made.

Interview :: Derek Webb

I had the awesome opportunity to interview Derek Webb several weeks ago. And with his latest record now in pre-order mode, the time is right to share that with you. I make note of this, because if you follow Derek, you’ll realize that the very first question dates itself a tiny bit. I’m also excited to share an audio version of the interview for those of you who don’t have the time to read. We spent a long time talking and so this interview has been split up into three parts: 1) The State of the Music Business, 2) Derek’s new record, I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You, and 3) Long time questions I’ve been dying to ask. (Scroll down the page for audio files of parts 2 and 3.)

Derek Webb Interview Pt. 1

Ryan: I am excited to be talking to Derek Webb today, recording artist out of Nashville. Derek, how are you?

Derek: Doing fine.

Ryan: I know you were just trying to get on NPR to talk about Spotify. Would you care to share those thoughts? I know you didn’t get to get on with them.

Derek: Yeah, um, that conversation is kind of… this week with Nigel Godrich and Thom Yorke ranting on Twitter the last few days and you know it’s stuff that I’ve thought about and talked about, run my mouth off about and written about. So, I was anxious to try and get on there because I overheard them talking about a handful of things.

There were two things. One was… the thing that I came in hearing that I was anxious to comment on was how free music changes the value, or how not paying becomes an expectation. What’s interesting is, that I have found over the my 5 or 6 or 7 years of giving a lot of music away for free is that I’ve really found the opposite [to be true]. I’ve found that it raises the value of the music, and the thing that’s vital to having a perspective on this is realizing that music doesn’t only have monetary value. That it has a lot of different types of value, not just monetary value. The only way that you could see free music as devaluing the art is to believe that the only value it has is monetary, which I don’t. You know, it has spiritual value, it has relational value, it has (certainly) monetary value. It has a lot of different kinds of value and I find that giving it away for free and risking everything on the deepest connection being made by way of the music itself… putting the music out there as its own best marketing tool… actually really raises its value. The relational value of music. So I was hearing them talk [on NPR] about that and really wanting to jump in because I make more – even just in terms of money – I make more money giving records away for free than I made selling records in the old model.

So there’s so much to talk about when you’re talking about… and Spotify specifically. And I’ve already said that I prefer folks downloading my music on Bit Torrent illegally than consuming it on Spotify. Because at least on Bit Torrent, people understand that what they’re doing is harming the artist, whereas on Spotify they’re wrongly convinced that either by enduring ads or paying for a subscription they are supporting the artist and that’s just simply not true. So it’s like they clean the conscience of the music fan, when they really have no right to do that on my behalf.

So, yeah, so much…

Ryan: You’re right, there is so much to go into. A couple of conversations that I’m having is not “does it devalue the music” so much, but does it change our listening patterns? My friend, Ryan [Gregg] and I were talking about how, in the old days, you would scrape together your nickels and dimes and go down to Best Buy and drop $15 and if you hated the record, you convinced yourself that you loved it. That it was the best thing you ever heard. You just played it over and over and over until you loved it.

Derek: Yeah, that’s right. You would kind of commit to it because you had something invested in it.

Ryan: I think there’s a lot to be said there, but there’s a lot to be said that you would never have dropped $15 for something you could find for free whether on Noise Trade or Spotify or wherever else because you [now] have the opportunity to find more.

Derek: The upside of that is it gives artists the opportunity (and some might not see this as an opportunity, I see it as an opportunity) to go through their tribe of fans and weed out the ones that are not really “in” and don’t really understand what they’re doing. Because I would rather somebody have the most low-stakes opportunity possible to listen to and spend time with and understand what I do and determine whether that’s something they really love and connect with and will want to support. I would rather people have that opportunity and make real fans, real long-term fans, on the other side of a free transaction than have people who are committed to liking me but deep down really don’t and wind up spending our entire relationship on message boards saying how much they can’t stand my new record and thinking that one day they’re finally going to love something I do. They’re just not fans and that’s ok, they just need to go listen to something else. So I think that’s a real opportunity to see where the real fans are. Give them a chance to really deeply connect with it in a low-stakes situation. I’m really kind of a fan of that approach… So, um… I don’t want to get off on a tangent… so I won’t laughs.

Ryan: I know we’re talking about the free-ness, but at the end of the day you’ve got to survive. And I think when you started Noise Trade there was a lot of talk about The Long Tail and how as much money – or more money – was spent on those hundreds of thousands of obscure artists as was spent on the hundreds of large Bon Jovis (editorial aside: why do I always target Bon Jovi??) and Lady Gagas of the world. Am I getting that right?

Derek: It’s more like a dozen now days. In terms of artists who sell more than a million records in a year, I mean it’s fewer than ever and it’s decreasing all the time. The head of the sales curve is in a constant state of decrease.

Ryan: And I think the tail is growing and growing as technology becomes more accessible. So, my question for you is: Is there still room at the table for everyone to carve out their corner and have a surviving – even thriving – lifestyle, or have we just overwhelmed the disposable income of the masses with too many artists? Because Noise Trade goes everywhere from big name artists to people who don’t even play – it’s churches and independent people who have made a record in their basement-kind. Does everybody have a chance to survive in this model?

Derek: Yeah, I mean, my take on that is that there has never been a better time to be a blue-collar musician. There’s never been a better time. I don’t think we’ve even hit the peak of it yet, let alone do I not think it’s over yet, I don’t think we’ve even hit the “sweet spot.” The differentiation to be made here: there are fans for everybody… Here’s the deal, when it comes to making a living as an artist, there are a handful of rules. Rule #1 is the most important one and you can’t break Rule #1 no matter how good you are at the rest. And Rule #1 is: Be Awesome. And you can’t break Rule #1. It doesn’t matter how good you are at digital marketing. It doesn’t matter how good you are at social media. It doesn’t matter how willing you are to tour. None of the rest of it matters if you’re breaking Rule #1.

Keeping Rule #1 isn’t the only thing. There are parts of the job that you – even thing that you will complain won’t come natural to you and need to be someone else’ job – that you just have to learn. New skills you have to learn. But the only folks who can make any real use of Rules #2-10 are folks who are not breaking Rule #1. So, that’s really the first thing.

If you are good, there are fans for you. There is somebody out there, there is a group of people, who will support you if they can find you. And you need fewer of those kind of people – people who really, deeply resonate and who will really stay and support what you’re doing – you need fewer of those people today than you’ve ever needed to make a middle-class living as an artist.

So, it is a job that you can do. It is more accessible than it has ever been in history, but… so, that’s Rule #1, but what I was saying before is, the difference is when you start talking about “the masses”. Are the masses exhausted? Is the market overwhelmed? Are there too many artists, too many records, too little currency for too much music? Absolutely. But, see, that’s the difference.

A guy like me, most of my friends, blue-collar artists, folks who live their whole career in the tail that we discussed of the sales curve… I’m not trying to reach the masses. I don’t have any interest in the masses. And the masses don’t have any interest in me. I’m making no play to be discovered by the masses. What I want is to very slowly, very carefully curate a tribe of people of who understand and like and support what I do over a long period of time. I mean, I’ve said if I sold a half million records next year my career would be over. I’d be miserable. I want to do everything I can to sabotage any opportunity I might have for mass exposure, for one big splash. That’s the last thing in the world I want. I don’t want my big break or my big opportunity. I don’t want it. What I want is to maybe not ever sell any more records than I’m selling today. I have a great career. I do exactly what I want to do. I control the creative output of the records I make completely. Nobody interferes with it. And I’m on a major label – I have been my whole career. I’ve never been fully independent. And I’m still able to operate like an independent because I’ve never had one huge moment of success. That’s the only way that I’m able to operate the way I am. If I had a huge moment of mass success – you know, success to the masses – it would literally threaten my entire career and everything that’s great about the way I’m able to make my living.

And so, I’m really careful that I don’t ever… I’m not gunnin’ for the masses. I think the masses are exhausted. I want my tribe. And those people, the remedy to their is exhaustion is to find one or two artists who they resonate with. That’s the remedy. So, as like as a model of a blue-collar artist who is entering into commercial market, I am actually – not me personally, but  – those artists who are actively pursuing their specific tribes are the antidote to the exhausted mass market. All those tons of people in that mass market are really looking for a few artists that they can really love and support. And that’s what – that’s exactly what blue-collar artists who are really focused on tribe building, that’s what they do. I mean, that’s exactly what it’s about. And so, if all those individuals who make up that mass market could find one, two, three artist who they resonate with deeply – suddenly, they’re satisfied. They’ve found what they’re looking for.

Ryan: That’s totally on point and I think when you hear that new album by that artist you love, it so meets a need in your spirit that everything else can’t. Those big, splashy releases – and we’ve had a lot of them recently – if that resonates with you, then that fulfills a need and if it doesn’t, it’s just more product.

Derek: Right and that’s kind of the reason that I’m ok with giving the records away for free, ’cause if somebody downloads my music for free and they don’t resonate with it or don’t love it… there is zero opportunity cost in that transaction for me. Because that is not someone who would have purchased my music. So I would rather them and me know that they are not a fan of mine and they can move on to somebody else and I can stop wasting my time trying to sell something to them. Again, if the opportunity cost is zero for me to give music to somebody who doesn’t like it, wouldn’t have purchased it, I’m fine giving it to them and they can just delete it. It’s a zero-sum game for me because I wouldn’t have made any money out of that person anyway. For those who discover my music and like it, and only discover it because it’s free, then that’s found money for me. That’s the only way that I was ever gonna find that fan. If they’ve not found me after 20 years, then that free record might have been the only opportunity that they could have found their way to me and been willing to give it a try. And then, if they find it and they love it, and then I have their email and zip code – and that’s the trade we made: they get the music and I get the data – well then, now I’ve got a direct connection to a new fan that I can sell old records to that they don’t know about, new records to that haven’t come out yet, shows in their area, merch off the merch table, there’s a million different ways to make money.

And the people who love and support what you’re doing are glad to give it to you. You’re not wrenching money out of their hands, they can’t wait to give it to you. Just like I can’t wait to give my money to The Arcade Fire when their new record comes out in a few months. I will literally drive all over town – I mean it used to be drive all over town to look for the Deluxe Edition that nobody knew about that cost $100. I mean, I was that guy. For the artists that I love, I am not only willing to give them my money, I can’t wait to give them my money. And I’m willing to give them more than most people would give them. I have purchased the Macklemore record maybe three times digitally because I am that big a fan. Because it went on sale at Amazon and had two bonus tracks, I bought it again. And then it went on sale somewhere else and I just love it so much I just went and bought it AGAIN! Just because I love ’em. They don’t even have to ask me to spend money. If I’m part of their tribe and I resonate that deeply… money’s not your biggest problem. Finding your tribe is your problem. Once you find your tribe, they will give you their money. They can’t wait to give you their money. So, we’re looking at the whole thing upside down.

Ryan: So, let’s look at it from the other perspective: I know there are so many artists on Noise Trade and I think there’s a growing mentality in our culture of entitlement: “I’ve put this out there. Everybody needs to come buy my record.” You mentioned Rule #1 being “awesomeness”. Are you seeing a lot of people who are coming into the business of music and saying “Well, I’ve made a record, where’s my audience?” or “I’ve got a record deal now, work for me.”

Derek: Yeah, you know I think that entitlement is a product of the old model and it might be going away as music is more understood as a blue-collar living. I think in the old model, music was a white-collar living. You know, you’re going to do something and it’s going to change your life overnight. Everybody’s gonna know who you are, you’re going to make a bunch of money. If you want riches and fame, you just need to go try something else. Music’s just not for you – if that’s why you’re getting into it. If you’re getting into it because you want to do the work of music: out on the road, playing, connecting with people, making the record, dreaming it up, writing great songs that resonate with a particular group of people – well, that is a blue-collar living that you can have for a long time if you want it, if you understand that it’s work (which it is). And it’s great work. It’s a fantastic job. I love my job.

Fewer people that I’ve seen are expressing that kind of entitlement because nobody owes you a career. Nobody owes you, you know, even putting your record up for free on Noise Trade doesn’t mean people are gonna download it. It has to be great and you have to know how to do the other parts of the job. You have mobilize and audience and a tribe to help get the word out and incentivize them to get the word out. To tell their friends about it, which is why we make the music free.

Ryan: There’s a lot more work to it than there was before.

Derek: Yeah, but what’s interesting is, you couldn’t even do the work if you wanted to before. You couldn’t even put your hands on it. Like the artists were more like children in the room. Like, “You just go and sing your little songs and let the grownups take care of the marketing and distribution, promotion, touring, budgeting. You let us do all that.” And that’s why the artists were getting screwed. Because they were like the children in this scenario. And they really had no control. They were really relegated to do one thing.

But see, the thing is… the thing that I’m excited about music being more of a blue-collar living now is that there is no better group than the artists themselves to come up with creative solutions to the challenges that are facing the market right now. You can’t expect groups who have no idea what the problems are in our market to come up with the solutions. We’re creative people. We should be the ones, of everybody, who can dream up solutions. I guarantee you, the week before Kickstarter launched, there were two dozen blue-collar artists all over Nashville where I live, or Austin, or any other music town, sitting around saying to themselves and each other, “You know what would be awesome? If there was some way by which fans could, like, support me making the record – almost like a pre-sale where they could purchase it and support it and then they buy in before it even comes out and that kind of facilitates the making of it. Man that be so cool. I wish somebody would do that.”

Blue-collar artists, most artists because they are so abstract, because of the way they’re wired, most artists they don’t even understand the value of the ideas that are in their own heads. They are living on the front lines. They understand what the new tools need to be. They just don’t have the language with which to articulate to someone who could go and implement those tools and bring that stuff to market. But if somebody could stand in the gap as a translator between entrepreneurs and blue-collar artists then you would see… it would be just like Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. All of a sudden there’d be new tools coming out every week that would be insanely valuable and useful because they were being dreamed up by the artists themselves.

That’s one of the advantages I feel like Noise Trade has is that I’m a blue-collar artist who uses our tool and I’m part of the company. So, like, I’m able to vet the tools we’re developing and say to our designers and developers and our team, “Yeah, that’s a really clever… it’s a cool thing, but there’s no way I would use or pay for that and let me tell you why… it’s just and instinct. I’m just telling you that it’s super cool, and all of our friends in the tech world would love that particular functionality, but it’s just not useful to me as a blue-collar artist.” So we scrap it.


Part Two

Derek Webb Interview Pt. 2

Ryan: Let’s dive in and talk about the new record, I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You.

Derek: Yes.

Ryan: I want to ask a really specific question because the first line is, “It’s been 20 years since I rose and cleared my throat.” Is that resonating with a specific memory for you? Or just a generic “20 years”? When you sing that line do you think of a first show with Caedmon’s [Call] or a first time stepping on a stage?

Derek: Yeah, well, that whole first verse is basically me just wanting to go through specifically my entire music career, summing Caedmon’s up really in that first line and going all the way through my entire solo discography. And wanting to be very clear that regardless of what you think you’ve heard me [say] whether or not it’s something I actually said or not. Wanting to be very clear about what my intention has been. And so really that first line, I mean really I wanted to be specific and go album by album but I couldn’t do that and include all the Caedmon’s records, so I just summed Caedmon’s up with one line and then got specific starting at year ten, you know, all the way up to last year’s release.

Ryan: So, talking about being specific and being clear about what you’re about… Can you talk any at all about transparency in lyrics? I think you talked a little bit to someone about [your previous record] Ctrl and the need to name “it” as much as you could without being too explicit in what you were saying and you’ve kind of walked that fine line over the years of saying things that were specific without being 100% transparent – and how you walk that line as an artist and as an individual.

Derek: Well, there are moments to come right out and say things and there are moments where it’s more useful as a communicator, ironically, to be evasive and keep things abstract… There are really very useful moments for both. And I’ve found in the more recent years with the things I’ve been wanting to communicate – some of the subject matter, etc. – it’s been very useful to stay in that kind of zone. That’s been a real sweet spot in terms of communicating in a way that I really felt like was useful and effective.

But when it came to this record, it was really time for me to show up in the lyrics a little bit. I feel like, I’ve been doing insanely personal work over the last few years. I’ve made some of my most personal records and written some of my most personal lyrics but they may not be viewed as that because they’ve been left so abstract… to some extent because they were so personal. It’s a little bit of self-protection. But, it was time for me to really show up on an album again and… You know, 10 years in I felt like it was time for me to pull my tribe in a little bit and pull them behind the curtain a little bit and be more clear about what I believe my role to be, what I perceive as my strengths and to maybe remind some of those people why they resonated with me in the first place.

Because I see so much a part of my job as being an agitator – really enjoying and being particularly gifted at you know bringing up uncomfortable subject matter and poking and prodding at people with questions (not demanding particular answers so much, but wanting people to use their brain). What I’ve figured out over 10 years of solo work is you can’t only do that. You can’t only agitate. You have to remind people every so often why they are listening to you in the first place in order to keep yourself in the role of agitating.

Ryan: Would you say… I think, 10 years ago people would have said “Derek Webb sounds like ‘X’.” And I think that this record really harkens back to that sound – a little more electronic, but not a lot. How do you deal with the fact that, over the last 3 or 4 years, you know, some of the people that I believe would be part of your “tribe”, who really love what you’ve done, sonically have distanced themselves because it’s just not the sound that resonates with them? How do you balance that artistic side, with professional side, with the statement and just the pure music of it?

Derek: Well, see, I mean that’s um… see, I like experimenting. I like really pushing hard into the future. I like coming up with new tricks. I don’t like repeating myself. And I like standing on the work that I’ve done previously and always bringing that with me. And, that being an assumption, not feeling the burden of restating everything I’ve said previous in order to say something new. And even with what I’ve said or done previously – unless I go back and specifically recant – the assumption should be that I still agree with everything I said previously. And I know some people have had a hard time with that.

And I like doing that on the production side, too. I mean, I really like experimenting. I’m a producer and a remixer. I really like pushing forward. I like making sure that I’m keeping myself engaged and interested in what I’m making and what I’m doing all the time in order to never find myself asleep at the wheel. And so that’s been part of the effort and that’s been part of the journey. And I’ve really the last so many years really experimenting and pushing on the production side.

But, I guess I [got to a moment] and I was ready for this moment where I thought it might be important to, again, give myself permission to make a record that could be understood on first listen and that could really be enjoyed by my tribe. I feel like I’ve not been interested in making records that people could enjoy. That kind of wasn’t on my radar. I didn’t really care about making records people enjoyed. I needed to make records that seemed important to me. Enjoyment was really secondary. But I wanted to really give myself permission to do that. And I felt like it was a good time both from a content and a production standpoint to try to kind of take an account of where I’ve been and pull everything (all my tricks) pull everything I know into this moment and try to make a record that brings all the different tools, all the different sounds, all the different strengths that I feel that I’ve put together over the last 10 or 20 years to this, in order to connect as deeply as possible with the tribe that I’ve got right now. It’s a moment of trying to go and regain that trust as an investment in my next 10 years, in order to stay in a position to continue to ask questions. I can’t ask questions if no one is there and no one is listening.

Ryan: It seems like the marketing behind this has been a lot different than the last few. Is that because you want to keep… it’s been a lot of work for us, the fans, to go along on crazy missions across town to pick up little slips of paper. Are you just trying to pare all of that down and strip it away? Or, did you feel like that was necessary to get buy in on those records?

Derek: Yeah, I mean, all… I don’t even like the marketing… the “marketing” that I’ve done starting back to when I really started to get more creative with it with Stockholm Syndrome – there was a little on Ringing Bell, but mostly on Stockholm Syndrome and forward from there – I didn’t really consider any of that marketing. All of the work I did before the release of some of those records (Stockholm Syndrome, Sola-Mi, Ctrl, Feedback to some extent) I felt like was literally part of the performance. It was not marketing.

Like when people were participating in the activities and the mysteries and things that we were making and distributing for people to find and participate in and just… you know… People would say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, you know, just take my money. When is the record going to come out?” I’m like, you don’t understand, you’re experiencing it now. This is it. Like, this part of the art I’m trying to make is something that will only be for the people who see it as that and experience it in real time, right now. And once this part of the project is over it will never be… you can’t experience it. And it’s only for the people that are really vigilant and really paying attention. The album is going to be the punctuation mark at the end. Just the part you can take with you. It’s the souvenir. This is the art, as much as the thing that will come after – the recorded part. I’m not trying to market the art. I’m making the art. You know, you’re soaking in it. This is it right now.

People didn’t always see it as that. They saw it as clever marketing (I hope “clever”). But, like, we never really saw it like that. I really saw all of those marketing campaigns as part of those projects, inherently. The full experience of those projects you can’t have now. They were things that were happening in the moment. They were communicating what the content was, how it should be viewed. And you know that’s part of how I’ve been doing it the last few years. That was really a fully-immersed experience, which is what I was hoping to provide.

But this time around, again, it was a “back to basics.” So I wanted to do something that was not complex, that did not require an inordinate amount of attention from people who I know can’t spare it. [Knowing that] I have demanded quite a bit of it in the last few years and folks might be growing a little tired of that. I wanted to do something that was a more straight-forward marketing campaign and, you know, we involved the label to a larger extent than we ever have in 10 years. My record label that I’ve been with for the last 10 years is more a part of and has been speaking into the marketing of this record more than any record we’ve ever done together in 10 years and I think it’s really benefited from that and from their input. And you know we’re releasing a lot of content – it’s all about to ramp up in the next few weeks [editor’s note: interview was recorded 3 weeks prior to this posting].

We’ve done a lot of work to really figure out what are the points of connection, what are the points of resonance where we feel like those new people, but especially that disengaged part of my larger tribe will come in and hear or see something that they resonate with, connect with, and want to lean in and find out what’s going on on this record. What are those elements? How can we make them great? Distribute them in a way that’s consumable for our people. You know we’ve really put a lot of thought into that. We’ve played out way out in front of this project to try to prepare a lot of great and easy content for people. And tried to truly apply ourselves to a more conventional approach and hopefully we’ll see that working in the next few weeks.


Part Three

[Brief backstory: Several years ago, before the release of their album The Walk the band Hanson did a video podcast leading up to the record (and this is in the very early days of podcasting). In one of these videos, there was information about a songwriting retreat that the brothers held and for little more than a second Derek is visible on screen as are several members of the band Eisley. I recently stumbled across the picture below and (though I can’t fully credit myself) urged Derek to reach out to both of these bands who in turn promoted their newest albums through his NoiseTrade.com earlier this year.]

source: Hansonish.com

source: Hansonish.com

Derek Webb Interview Pt. 3

Ryan: Can I ask you a couple of off-topic questions about some other artists that you’ve collaborated with or had some interest in?

Derek: Sure, yeah.

Ryan: So, you know I have this question I’ve always wanted to ask… Can you tell me anything about how the whole thing with the Hanson, Eisley, Derek and Sandra, a few other people thing came together for you and what that was like?

Derek:Yeah, that’s an interesting story. So, the Hanson guys I had a loose connection with over a lot of years because (as I understood it) those guys… um, you know… I don’t think I’m telling tales out of school to say that those guys have a Christian faith that they take pretty seriously. And they were into Christian music back when Caedmon’s was in it heyday and bands like Waterdeep were in their heyday. You know, they were aware of some of that music. There were a few times that I heard rumors that when we were playing shows in Oklahoma that they snuck into shows and saw the sets. I was never able to confirm any of that, but you know we’ve had a loose connection over a lot of years.

But some years ago, maybe 10 years ago, Sandra [McCracken – Derek’s wife] had a record that she was putting out with a label in the UK. She had signed a deal with a label in the UK and they were really pushing, both in the retail and on the radio, they were really pushing a record of hers. And she was over there for a long time doing a lot of work promoting it, marketing it. And she was [experiencing] some success on BBC2. And they set her up to open shows for Hanson, who (most people don’t know) in every other part of the world, have evolved and continued on their trajectory as a great rock and roll band. A band of brothers that makes really good music. They’ve been allowed to grow up and be adults and make adult music in every other country but America, really. They’re like the Beatles over there.

So, they set [Sandra] up to open for them and so she opened a bunch of shows for them and you know Sandra had a bunch of screaming fans chasing her around in the streets because she had been opening for them. It was insane. So she traveled all over, opening for them for a while and really connected with them and wound up playing a finale at the end of their show with them. They just really connected and they got to know her music and her as a writer.

So, over the next few years, Hanson does a thing called the Fool’s Banquet which is a thing where they invite just a handful, less than a dozen, artists and writers to their house in Oklahoma where they have their studio and they spend a long weekend and they match up songwriters and they sit in on every session just writing songs. Recording them at night. Sharing them at the end of the night with everybody else who’s been, so they just write songs all day in different random groups that they put together as a means to find great songs for their album, but also as a means to stay connected with the indie community.

They invited me and Sandra to come to this little Banquet thing several years ago and we wrote together and got to know them even better than we had known the previously. And Sandra’s gone to the Fool’s Banquet a few times and gotten to write. And we’ve met up with them at both our shows and their shows as we’ve been able to over the years. And they’re good friends. Man, they’re great hard workers. They’re one of the biggest indie bands in the world, most people just don’t know it. They run their business, independent, like nobody’s business. They’re a great organization. Great guys.

Ryan: And you were talking [previously] about how you sabotage yourself not to have that one breakthrough hit and that’s really, I think, what hurt them so much is that they could never replicate that breakthrough moment. And, so, they end up doing the same thing that you’re doing on a day to day basis.

Derek: Yeah, man. They’re blue-collar now. It’s a great job and they sustain it and they own it and control it. Yeah.

[Backstory: When I discovered the recent work of Charlotte Church several months ago I thought it might something that would really interest Derek – if not musically, at least from a positioning standpoint. I tweeted him about it and was glad to see that he resonated with it and was able to make a connection between Charlotte’s team an NoiseTrade. If you’ve been around this site very long, you know that I think she’s one of the best things happening in music right now.]

Ryan: Second question: Have you heard Charlotte Church’s EP #3?

Derek: No, I haven’t heard it yet, but I’m a huge fan and thanks to you and some other folks who brought her to my attention we were able to jump in behind her efforts to bring her old fanbase up to speed and find her a new fanbase who never, I think, would have considered her music because of what she’d done previously. But, she’s doing this amazing new stuff and I was thrilled to reach out to her and put the weight of NoiseTrade’s tribe behind her new music. And, yeah, you know I can’t wait to hear her new stuff and I’m a new fan. I knew her name. She’s got millions of fans worldwide but there will only be a remnant of those people who even understand or appreciate what she’s doing now, but it’s just a whole different audience.

There are a lot of people who have a connotation with Charlotte who might not think they could ever be fans of her music, but if they’d just give it a chance they’d find they were huge fans. And I hope NoiseTrade helped make a little dent in her finding some of that new tribe. We definitely saw a lot of people respond in that way saying, “Wow, you know I just got this free EP from Charlotte Church and I’m blown away by how much I love it.” You know, I resonate very much with the moment she’s in of wanting to disrupt and experiment and try new things and take that risk. I mean that’s been one of the hallmarks of how I’ve run my career and so I love watching that moment she’s in. I was thrilled to be in a position to be any small part of helping her out.


I can’t say enough thanks to Derek Webb for taking the time out to record this interview

Artist of the Month :: Derek Webb

I’ve said a lot, in the past, about Derek Webb so I won’t bore my long-term loyalists with too much back story. Webb spent the first ten years of his career in the band Caedmon’s Call where he offered up a portion of the songwriting and lead vocal duties on a total of 14 records (full length, EPs, and compilations). In the past ten years, he has had an on-again-off-again relationship with the band having played on 2 of their 4 records since his “departure”. In that same latter time frame, he has released an additional 15 records (by the same accounting) with his latest album set to release the first week of September.

Now, there are a lot of artist whose music I enjoy. There are a number who have had some significant effect on me. But I don’t think anyone has had as deep an impact as Derek Webb – even beyond (and sometimes in spite of) his music.

I was first introduced to Caedmon’s Call (as many were) on their self-titled major-label debut record (1997). While I didn’t really know all of the dynamics (two songwriters, three singers) at the time, I definitely resonated more with Webb’s tracks – specifically “Standing Up for Nothing” and “Center Aisle“. While stocked in your local Lifeway Christian Store, this was certainly not what defined “Contemporary Christian Music.”

Their 40 Acres (1999)record was my first exposure to a discussion of reformed theology (“Thankful“) and by their Long Line of Leavers(2000) I was skipping over everything that wasn’t Webb-written.

In 2001, Webb embarked on a solo tour of non-church venues including bars and clubs. His stop in Lubbock, TX would mark my third show in concert promotion business (alongside BJ Olin who I interviewed last week). We even did an in-studio with the local college radio station – I’m the creeper by the door.

derek on air

In 2003, Derek released his solo debut, She Must and Shall Go Free, and basically lost me. It wasn’t what I was expecting. It wasn’t “country” but to this day that’s the closest description I can give to it – and to this day, I’m not the biggest fan of it. By that point, I had been listening to live recordings of his most well-known solo track “Wedding Dress” for a year and a half, and the production on the studio record wasn’t for me.

With that in mind, I bailed on his live record The House Show(2004) and picked back up on his next studio record I See Things Upside Down(2004). This record knocked me on my butt sonically and lyrically. This was the dwebb record I wanted to hear. It was the first time in a long time that I had been challenged by a record and it proved to be the gift that kept on giving. As my obsession with one great song would start to wane, I would discover another more profound than the last.

It was probably a couple more years before I went back and listened to The House Show. The performances on that record are great, but pale in comparison to the points where Webb speaks on a variety of topics regarding personal faith and Christian culture. It was this experience that cemented me as more than a fan, but a loyalist.

From 2005 to 2011 Webb released a plethora of content – 4 studio albums including 1 instrumental, 2 compilations (acoustic versions and remixes), 2 duet EPs alongside his wife Sandra McCracken, and 2 quasi-fan-club cover records. They all had their highs and lows but the all pale in comparison to what he did next…

Last year Webb (un)officially dropped the “recording” from the front of “artist” when he took his fans on a journey of imagination with the events leading up to his two releases Nexus(with Josh Moore and Latifah Phillips under the moniker, “Sola-Mi”) and Ctrl. More than a couple of records, this was an experience complete with fake twitter accounts that would interact with each other, Webb, his friends, and fans, scavenger hunts across the country, promo videos for a non-existent film, and more. The resulting discovery was that the separately released records were in fact part of one whole with the Nexus album inserting within the Ctrl album between tracks 7 and 8.

And, while all of that is awesome, it was nothing on the level of how the Ctrl record, wrecked me emotionally. It is so beautifully crafted that no matter where you are, you can find yourself within it. I’m still on the journey that it started, and I hope it doesn’t end.

As mentioned at the outset, Webb has a new record on the table, I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You. In a manner of speaking, it is his reflection on the same 20 years I’ve outlined above. I’ll be posting some acoustic versions of the new songs over the next few weeks, I’ve got an interview with derek going up two weeks from now, and (of course) a review of the record on the official release day, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, you can get selections from his entire solo catalog completely free on Noisetrade (a site he co-created) so go catch yourself up.

Twin Forks: Tour EP vol. 1

About a week ago I was doing some research and landed on the site of a band called Augustana (a site that has since changed). There was an out-dated blurb in their news feed from April that said something to the effect of “Our old friend Chris Carrabba (of Dashboard Confessional) has a new band called Twin Forks. Check them out.” I did. And I was shocked.

I’ve long been familiar with the emo stylings of DC. And while I’ve known of it forever, I’ve only recently furthered my awareness of Chris’ original band, FSF, with whom he recently reunited. So, it probably goes without saying that neo-folk music was not what I was expecting. And, while I’ve been out of the loop, the band (Chris Carrabba, Suzie Zeldin, Jonathan Clark, and Ben Homola) have been getting their fair share of indie press in the wake of a performance at SXSW.

They’ve got an EP out and if you’ll wade through my thoughts on it, then I’ll let you know how you can get a copy of your own.

Back to You: When I first heard this, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Banjos? Mandolins? Tambourine? Definitely something different. I love the group vocals on the original recording. The harmonies in the video below leave something to be desired but – considering it was only their second “show” I’ll cut them some slack. That, plus the harmonies are so tight that if your monitors are off, then I would think it would be difficult to nail.

Scraping Up the Pieces: I love this track because it sounds like an Irish bar song. In a landscape overrun with the neo-folk revivalists (i.e. Lumineers, Mumford), Carrabbas vocals are a welcomed change. The driving drumbeat propels the track and the chant-along vocals make for a real “communal” experience.

And She Was: This is a Talking Heads cover, but to my knowledge I’ve never heard it. That said, it has a haunting familiarity. The chord structure has a very late-50s-early-60s feel to it. It is the most like what we’ve heard from Carrabba’s previous work, but still wholly different.

Hard Times: A Gillian Welch cover? Ok, we can be friends. Not the best G. Welch cover I’ve ever heard (we’ll give that to The New Frontiers’ rendition of Miss Ohio”), but a fine offering nonetheless. It is so sparse and showcases the classic Carrabba vulnerability that we love.

So here’s the best part: You can get this EP for free just by sending an email to twinforksmusic@gmail.com – so get on it.

Lance Whalen: Sweet Sugar Pie

Release Date: May 10, 2013

This record is so good. If you haven’t read my feature article introducing you to Lance Whalen yet, please do so. I absolutely love what he’s doing as an artist. He’s also been very engaging and very intriguing to get to know. I’m very excited to get to share his music with you.

In talking with Lance about the his new EP, Sweet Sugar Pie, he shared how he really wanted this record to reflect the live experience and that his previous work had failed to capture that. Of course, you know this frustration: go to the concert, or your at the club/bar already, you like what you’re hearing so you decide to pick up the record, you get out to the car and pop it in and say “who the heck is this guy?” (Jason Mraz, I’m looking at you.) So, I can definitely appreciate a guy who wants to bring that experience home on the record.

Unfortunately for Whalen, he didn’t receive the best feedback and was encouraged to not release these recordings. As he says “none of ‘my people’ thought it was a good idea. But I just had to do it.”

What The Hell Was I Thinking: from the artist, “track one was recorded while on tour in a basement in Connecticut… at 3am with musicians who had never played with each other before. it is entirely live.” The live sound absolutely comes through in the driving rhythms and harried vocals. This is an instance where the Tom Waits vocal style really shines.

Best I Can: Lance told me that in the interim between his last album and releasing this EP, he has been doing some work for film and television. This song arose out of one of those assignments to work with a given prompt and deliver a finished product on a very short timeline. The doubled vocals, he says, were not the initial plan, but the original, live vocals needed work. I love the interplay between the original track and the overdub.

Sweet Sugar Pie: To me, this song is just heart-wrenching. I honestly want to cry when I hear it. The emotion comes through in every single note. Lyrically, it reminds me a lot of Pearl Jam’s “Dissident.” I hear the story of an outlaw on the run who is letting his guard down just for one night. He may realize that the end is near and is dreaming of a different life.

The experience is bolstered by the reality of the performance: from the artist, “I was in a car accident on the interstate while  on the way to this million dollar studio where people like Taylor Swift and Alison Krauss have recorded…  I showed up,  recorded the song in one take and then called a friend to take me to the emergency room.”

The Way You Love Me: I haven’t connected with this track as much as I have with the others. To be fair, though, he would be hard-pressed to follow the title-track with anything. I think this one really captures that Nick Cave essence the best. I like it. It’s wonderfully melodic and the production is a welcomed change from the sparseness of the other tracks. I think that the lyrics are a little ambiguous and maybe that’s what’s kept me at a slight distance from this one.

Now, 99% of the time, if it’s available on Amazon, I’m going to suggest that you purchase it there because I’m a huge advocate for their digital music prices and customer service. But when you’ve got an artist like this grinding it out night after night in bars and clubs, I want to make sure we treat him right. With that in mind, I encourage you to purchase this directly from his website.

Interview :: Lance Whalen

Sometimes, when you’re not even looking for it, greatness finds you. Such is the case with how I met Lance Whalen. Why explain it, when I can just show it to you (below).


Surprised by this brief conversation, I looked at Lance’s Twitter profile where I found his website. He has a few songs posted there that you can stream or download, so I gave it a listen and I was blown away. The growl of Tom Waits, the darkness of Nick Cave, and the heart of Johnny Cash all rolled into one. It’s a sound that Whalen very accurately describes as Americana Noir.

Lance and I traded a few tweets and he sent me his new EP, Sweet Sugar Pie, to review (record and review are both coming out Friday). Since I figured none of my readers would know who he is, I wanted to dig a little deeper and I’m honored that he would allow me the opportunity. While I wanted to present this as an interview, some technical difficulties are forcing me to simply share his story as he related it to me.

The Man:

Lance began his musical journey as a high school student in Kentucky. Listening to music that he connected with helped him feel less alone and writing his own music offered a much needed channel for expressing himself. After suffering through the demise of several failed bands, Whalen came to the realization that he was simply meant to be a solo artist.

Discontent began to build following series of life-changing events including his being diagnosed with a heart condition that would warrant having a pacemaker put in and his fiance’s untimely death. This coupled with the growing awareness that he was only half committed to his art with one foot in his own life and one foot in the life that everyone wanted for him. This “series of straws” finally broke the camel’s back with Lance declaring “I’m not going to die here.” So in 2004, he loaded up his gear and took the plunge by moving to Nashville.


Still based in Nashville, Whalen plays a lot of the local clubs, but also finds himself spending a lot of time on the road. He admits that it’s a tough place to live, but he’s enjoyed seeing it develop and grow over the years.

His Music:

On his new EP, Lance has really perfected the sound that he’s spent more than a decade developing. Referring to his earliest work, he muses that the trouble with music is that once you put something out, you can never get it back. He states that if he could, he would gather up many of his early releases and destroy them before anyone could hear it.

One of the keys to the authenticity on this record, Whalen suggests, is the support of his producer John Simpson (who also produced his last full length record). By having a trusted partner in the process, Lance was able to focus more on the strengths of his songwriting and performance, rather that trying to do everything himself.

That added focus comes through clearly on the record as it shows that he has really established his own voice. When asked if there are any artists that he emulates or admires, he says that he used to try to emulate Elvis, the greatest voice in rock n roll. When he realized that he didn’t have the ability to do that, then he wanted to find a sound that he could really thrive in. As mentioned before, the comparison to Nick Cave fairly jumps off the record, especially once you’ve gotten a look at Whalen. He states that Cave is not only a songwriter he really identifies with, he’s also very inspired by Cave’s longevity and ability to continue putting out great records.

When asked about comparisons to Tom Waits, he acknowledges that it is there, but feels moreso that both he and Waits were inspired by the work of Captain Beefheart. (I’ll be honest, I had to look that one up, but he appears to be fairly influential and did in fact spark a major shift for Tom Waits.) Also of Waits, Lance says, “he’s probably the only artist I’ve ever fallen out of love with,” citing the overly predictable nature of his recent work.


What’s Next:

Lance Whalen is definitely an old soul with an old school work ethic and process. (In a way, his unique style forces him to be.) He’s not looking to stand in line for 48 hours to appear on the next season of The Voice. Instead, he’s grinding it out on stages across the country. As he says, “it’s all about gaining one fan at a time.” That’s why he would rather play for 15 really engaged people at a hole in the wall in a small town than 100 dis-interested people at bigger venue.


His EP releases on May10 (stay tuned here because you’ll have a chance to win a copy of it on Thursday). After that, he’ll be setting off on the road to Canada and back to play 32 shows in 30 days. I’m trying to talk him into adding a Texas date as soon as he can.

find Lance online

Twitter | Facebook | Website | Store