February 19th, 2010
Slaid Cleaves (pt. 2) – Look Back At Me: An Interview
As we mentioned on Wednesday, Slaid Cleaves was gracious enough to answer some questions that we posed earlier this week. The Austin-based singer/songwriter discussed life, his craft, and his new CD – Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away. He also talked about some of his favorite places to play in Houston. He’ll be performing live at the Mucky Duck tonight, with shows at 7:00 and 9:30. For a chance to win a pass to the Cougar Cookers Cook-Off tent, leave a comment with your favorite Cleaves song and why. We’ll pick the best answer and email the winner.
The Loop Scoop: You have a very short and concise bio: “Grew up in Maine. Lives in Texas. Writes songs. Makes records. Travels around. Tries to be good.” How’s the trying to be good part going for you these days?
Slaid Cleaves: Well, you know, it’s a constant battle. Actually, it’s scary right now because I’m at the bottom of the cycle again where I’ve written the songs, I’ve made the record, I’ve traveled around and tried to be good and now I’m at the zero point again where I’ve kinda said all I wanted to say and I don’t have any new songs and the future is sort of wide open and that’s always a little scary.
TLS: What’s the one misconception that people have of your life as a singer/songwriter that you’d like to dispel?
SC: Nobody’s ever asked me that question, I thought I’d heard them all… People think that I’m on the road all the time, and I’m really not. I do a lot of road work, maybe more than average. I think about 10 years ago when the Broke Down record came out, I was getting on some radio around the country and I really seized that opportunity. I was hungry and I wanted the opportunity to play all over the country, which I hadn’t before that and when I got radio play in California and Chicago and Florida, I wanted to go everywhere, so I did. I played, I dunno, 220 shows or something like that that year and that’s pretty impressive and I got a reputation for being a real road dog and for a couple of years I was doing a lot of that, but I’ve been able to scale back into a more sane lifestyle. So, I do under a hundred shows a year now, which is a lot easier on the body. But in a way, to answer your question, I don’t necessarily want that myth dispelled. It’s nice to be thought of as a hard working guy.
TLS: Stephen King wrote the notes to your latest CD, Everything You Love Will be Taken Away. How did that come about and what was that like for you?
SC: Well it was a great thrill. He writes about music for Entertainment Weekly and when my Wishbones record came out in ‘04, he wrote a nice little blurb on it. He had heard me on satellite radio and wrote a nice blurb in Entertainment Weekly. Later that year, he showed up at a gig I played in Maine. It was a festival, an outdoor festival, and we saw Stephen King in the audience, which was a thrill, and then he came over to the booth and bought some CD’s for his friends and I signed them for him. He was very gracious and sort of offhandedly said as he was leaving, “hey if you ever need liner notes, give me a call.” So five years later I did and, bless his heart, I thought he really nailed the notes. You know, it was very gracious of him to lend his talent and his name and his fame to the notes, but I thought he said some really insightful things about some of the songs
TLS: In creating this CD, was there a song that you felt more connected to than others?
SC: Yeah, the song “Cry” was really the song that I felt like, was the kind of song, almost like a once in a lifetime or, at least once in a decade for me, in that it was very intense and emotional and vivid, I thought, lyrically and musically. I just knew, as soon as that song started to form, that I had something really special there and I worked really, really hard on that to give that song as much of a chance to reach its full potential and I still think that I didn’t quite get it. I recorded it four or five separate times with different producers, arrangements and musicians and for some reason, capturing that one on tape was an elusive project for me.
TLS: Is that something you find with a lot of songs? I know that as a writer, you can revise something 30 times and each time, find something new to fix. Does there come a point with the songs where you just have to let them go out into the world as they are?
SC: Yeah for sure. Early in my career, a song was finished as soon as there were three verses and a chorus. I didn’t do much rewriting, but when my career wasn’t advancing as fast as I thought it should be, I thought, well maybe I just need to buckle down more on these songs and analyze them and be more self critical and pick apart each song, line by line, word by word, even syllable by syllable almost, accenting and phrasing and rhythm and all that stuff. So, 10 or 12 years ago, I started really getting hard on these songs. So, yeah, I do a lot of rewriting and I do analyze each song line by line and make sure there’s nothing throwaway. There’s a little rule that I use, supposedly Bob Dylan said that every line of a the song should be good enough to be the title of the song. That’s a good little yardstick to put on it.
TLS: What’s your favorite Slaid Cleaves’ song and as an extension of that, what’s the best song to get an idea of who you are?
SC: You mentioned the song “One Good Year” and that’s one that I play every night and I have been for 10 years or so. I wrote that with Steve Brooks. That was a song that I wrote by myself and I knew that there was something there, but I knew the song had more potential than it was showing and Steve brought in a few different angles and tangents which sorta spurred me to respond with a whole new angle to the song and so his help was instrumental in getting that song to where it should be. And I do think for two reasons, I love singing that song because it just feels really true and represents well I think, where I’m coming from and the kind of music I’m singing and also the proof is in the pudding: That’s the song that has garnered the most intense contact with fans for 10 years. Every year or two, there’s someone who comes out the woodwork, who says that that song helped get them through a devastating time. Whether it’s a spouse dying or a brother committing suicide or, really, the darkest, darkest times, people have accidentally happened upon that song and it provided some comfort and a small ray of light to get through that dark time and so when I hear about that, I know that I’ve done my job.
TLS: What’s coming up for you? Anybody that you’re looking forward to working with?
SC: I’m not really thinking in those terms right now. As I mentioned earlier, I’m just sort of at square one right now trying to figure out what to do. I feel kinda wrung out and drained and I said all I wanted to say for a while so normally, at this point in the cycle, I just kinda lay low and try to read cause it’s really hard to read on the road and everything, so I haven’t read much lately. Trying to read and taking some time off and thinking about maybe writing in a slightly different form, you know, maybe I’ll write some more stories and maybe even put out a book or something. Who knows? Something different. I’ve been kinda doing the same cycle of write, record, tour for a decade or so now, and so it might be good to shake things up a little bit.
TLS: As an Austinite – you make it down to Houston fairly regularly. What do you like about the city and what’s something that you make sure you hit when you’re in the area? What about the Mucky Duck? What makes that a special place to play?
SC: My first experience with Houston was playing at Anderson Fair, and what I love about that is the history there. The fact that so many great Texas songwriters have passed through there: Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen. The staff there has been there forever, since the place opened in the seventies and they’re very welcoming and they have a very hippie, 70’s feel and that was such a cool little neighborhood there. So, I always thought of, you know people slag Houston, people put Houston down for being a big, soulless, corporate, kinda concrete jungle, but my first experience with Houston was that little Montrose section and Anderson Fair behind the art store. Its just a funky little neighborhood with a great little Mexican restaurant around the corner and these old hippies, these aging hippies, that welcomed us into the bosom of their little community there and I would play for 6 or 10 people and they’d pay me way more than they took in at the door and say “That’s okay, don’t worry. They’ll come. There were 6 people for the first Lyle Lovett show. Don’t worry about it, just keep coming back. It’ll happen,” and sure enough, a few years later, it did and I’ll always be thankful to them for providing that little nurturing atmosphere. These days I go to the Mucky Duck, which is also just a really perfect little venue. It’s very comfortable for the patrons and has good sound and it’s a little bigger than Anderson Fair. I’ve just kind of outgrown that one a little, tiny bit, but right now Mucky Duck is our preferred gig. One of our favorite shows of the whole touring year is to play at the Mucky Duck.
TLS: For those people who might not be familiar with you or might not have seen a live show, what can they expect Friday night?
SC: Well it will be me singing songs, playing guitar and I’ll have a side guy, a dear, old friend named Michael O’Connor, who’s a wonderful Texas guitar slinger and he’ll play acoustic guitar as well and I’ll sing these songs that are about people struggling through life and I’ll tell some funny stories in between just for a little levity. There’ll be some old time fans and regulars in the crowd who will be shouting out their favorite songs from over the years and hopefully, there will be some new people there. That’s always fun to see the excitement of new people having an experience of seeing someone for the first time and being excited to hear a new batch of music. I might play a few songs from some friends of mine, but mostly it’ll be my own songs. So we’ll do that for about 90 minutes and at the Mucky Duck, they serve really good food and beer and wine, so it’s almost like a dinner theater show so it’s very comfortable for the audience and we’re actually doing two shows an early show and a late show, so it’s be a long night, but it’s always very satisfying.
Slaid Cleaves will be playing at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck tonight, Friday the 19th. There will be two shows: One at 7:30 the other at 9:00. We’ll see you there.