A Conversation with Shawn Mullins
Mike Ragogna: Hi Shawn.
Shawn Mullins: Hello Mike, how are you?
MR: I'm pretty good, how are you doing, sir?
SM: I'm doing just great, man, I'm doing just great.
MR: I have to say, I was a fan of your music before The Thorns.
SM: That's great. Well, I'm just grateful that you even know about The Thorns.
MR: (laughs) The Thorns absolutely was on my radar when it was first issued. Now, you've been the songwriter's songwriter for a long time, care to go into some of the Shawn Mullins story?
SM: Well, I started off in around '89, trying to write my own songs--I mean, I've been doing it since I was in high school, but I started getting a little bit better at it by then. I put my first record out in '90, and then I kept making records almost every year. There were eight releases, and then Soul's Core happened in '98. There were already six studio albums and two live albums before that, and a few of those records are really good too. I'm sure I probably started recording before I should have, but I was just dying to get in the studio and record, you know? I was always wanting to write songs, but I was also interested in recording them and then singing them live for people, so I kind of did all of that. My first real success was in '98 with "Lullaby," which started as an alternative hit and crossed into the pop charts. I never had an idea that would happen, but that was cool and it went to #1 on the charts for five weeks. I did another record on Columbia, and then The Thorns happened. Matthew Sweet has always been one of my favorites, and I loved Pete's work as well. So, when we got together--I think it was around the end of '02 because I think the record came out in '03--we wrote all the songs together out on this ranch in Santa Ynez, California, and that was the most fun we had--writing the songs.
MR: Pete Droge and Matthew Sweet, of course, are incredible artists, so it must have been terrific when you got together with them.
SM: Yeah, no doubt. We did that for close to three years--the writing, making the record, and then touring the world a couple of times. We opened a ton of shows for The Dixie Chicks in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, we did a proper tour of the U.S. with The Jayhawks, which was really a great tour, and then it was time for us all to get back to our individual stuff. I started writing in Nashville shortly thereafter, as well as continuing my own recording career, and I wrote a little bit with Zac Brown on the tune called "Toes." A couple of years later, he got a deal, and it just went to #1 on the country charts last year. It's just kind of been fun to have this other thing going, with the professional songwriting in addition to doing my own records and touring. I love both of them a lot.
MR: You also had one of my favorite songs by you, "All In My Head," featured on Scrubs.
SM: Yeah, I actually wrote it for Scrubs. They were looking for a theme song in their first season, and Jerry and I wrote that song and sent it in. They didn't use it for their theme song, obviously, but they ended up using it in an episode, and then I ended up putting it on a record several years later. Funny how songs can kind of come back to life.
MR: I know. And they used the demo version, right?
SM: They did, they used our original demo version, which is kind of funny because we just slapped it together really fast to see if they'd like the song. They did like it, and in fact, that used it on TV. We were kind of hoping that we would get to go back and record it properly, but I was still pretty psyched that they used it. It's always funny when you slip someone a demo because they may like that, but you weren't giving it to them the best way that you could, you were just doing it fast. (laughs)
MR: You also had a song on Dawson's Creek.
SM: You know, Dawson's Creek, Party Of Five, and a bunch of those shows in the late '90s used a ton of songs. I think Dawson's Creek used four songs off of Soul's Core. They used "Shimmer," and I know they used "And On A Rainy Night" and "Lullaby," so they used at least three. That was kind of fun, and that really helped, actually. It helped get more and more people to know about my music. What's weird is that I seemingly disappeared after that, but at the same time I'm doing two-hundred shows a year, and kicking as much butt as I could kick without having a major label or a huge hit. So, it was a weird predicament because I never stopped doing anything, but I've had so many people come up to me recently and say, "I'm so glad you're back." Mostly, I just think it's funny, but it's a strange feeling because you're like, "Wow, I never really went anywhere. In fact, I've been trying to hard to stay on your radar." It's hard without some kind of major success, and it's also hard to top or to keep going after having a hit that was that big. I kind of look at it similar to Aimee Mann's career with 'Til Tuesday, where she had this huge pop hit in the early '80s and then she seemed to go away until the early '90s, when Whatever came out, which is this unbelievable record that her and Jon Brion did. But I'm sure she was doing shows, writing songs, and performing and stuff. I'm thankful that anyone still knows who I am. It's always a funny thing to go through that, you know?
MR: I guess it depends on how you measure success and what kind of success you are looking for, huh?
SM: Well, the way I measure success, and probably you as well, is probably really different from the masses out there, you know? They're watching American Idol every week, and that is kind of the pinnacle of success--to be the winner of American Idol. Hey, big things grow and change, and also they're cyclical. It's a very similar thing to Star Search back in the '80s, it's just bigger. I've never looked at my success in terms of how many people know about it. It's more of how good I'm getting or not getting, and my trying to become a better songwriter, singer, and a better entertainer live. I look at the masters--people that are just great at being onstage acoustic, like John Hiatt or Lyle Lovett, and Shawn Colvin is another one. There are people out there who are just master singer-songwriter-entertainers, and these are people that I've always looked up to and studied. And the more shows I do, hopefully, I'll get better at it. I think that's how I measure success, you know?
MR: Nice. You and those names you mention are all in a higher caliber of "artist" that I really wish the masses could hear more of.
SM: Thanks for saying that. Those people are like serious masters, and they've been doing it long enough that they just keep getting better and better. John Hiatt is the perfect example of these people who just kind of do what they do, and that grow and change, and their audience grows and changes with them. Yeah, it's not American Idol, but I think that's just another thing, you know? It's TV, it's hype, and sometimes on American Idol, it's a great artist that slips through and wins.
MR: Yeah, like Daughtry and Josiah Leming, I said sarcastically.
SM: Yeah, I mean there are some great singers that end up doing that, but typically, they're not also writers or whatever. Working in Nashville as much as I have in the last couple of years, I've seen a lot of really great singers that no one may ever hear about and musicians as well. There's something to be said for those people who kind of transcend all that, stick with it, and don't try to change what they're doing according to whatever fad is happening at the time. I think that's why John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris...well, Emmylou doesn't write a lot, but what an interpreter of song, you know? She's one of the best. Her doing a Townes Van Zandt song is one of my favorite things to hear. But yeah, I think they are classic performers, writers, and singers. It's just that the audience is not the every day masses, and I think that most great art is like that--the masses don't get it until years later, and maybe they don't ever get it, you know?
MR: Yeah, a very good point. When you have a choice between commerce and art, in a lot of cases you have to make your choice.
SM: Absolutely. It's funny, I'm constantly being asked for my music to be licensed in commercials or things that like, and you know, times are hard. I would prefer to have more of the Bill Hicks mentality, which is that no artist should ever support a corporation with their art. But since we've had a kid, all that's changed for me. Of course, I have to be picky about what I support and endorse; but at the same time, we've got to make a living as artists, and, obviously, it's harder and harder to do that with record sales. So, if you're a songwriter, any way your song can be worked as a copyright is a good thing.
MR: You downplay your level of writing with regards to being in a class with John Hiatt, Nancy Griffith, and the rest. But anybody who can turn a traffic jam in California into a wonderful love song is amazing. You, sir, did just that with "California."
SM: Listen, I appreciate that, and I do work hard at it. Also, I have to give Chuck Cannon some credit on that because Chuck and I wrote some of these songs on this record, and "California," in particular, is one that we wrote together and we really both brought it. Often times when you're co-writing a song, one person is kind of the leader on it, and the other person is filling in the gaps. "California" and "Light You Up," both of the songs that Chuck Cannon and I wrote, were truly equal, collaborative efforts. I'm glad you like it, it was fun. We were talking about Prince's "Little Red Corvette" and how we loved that double meaning of a woman and a car, and the whole rock 'n' roll imagery, and then I had mentioned that we had done a video of mine, years ago, in an old El Camino, where I was getting to race it down the desert highways. The next thing we knew, we had the El Camino, and then we had a red Trans Am instead of a Corvette, which you obviously wouldn't want to do.
MR: I especially love the lyrics, "Her stereo was blaring Dylan, The Bootleg Sessions, and oh 'The Times They Are A Changin'' made a pretty good impression. She looked over and caught him smiling. Under the California setting sun they fell in love on the 101." Sweet!
SM: The verse before that basically uses two cars to kind of describe the characters. You're not ever sure which one is driving which, but you can kind of take a good guess at it.
MR: Right. Let's get into "Light You Up," the title track of this album. Shawn, you know that if you build a man a fire he's warm for a day, but if you set a man on fire he's warm for the rest of his life, right?
SM: (laughs) Exactly. I like that, that's the old "teaching a man to fish" thing taken a little bit further.
MR: But the title track is another great song, can you go into it a little bit?
SM: Yeah, that's another one that Chuck Cannon and I wrote together. It started off in weird sort of way that has only happened to me two other times out of all the songs I've written, which is about eight-hundred songs at this point. It's only happened a couple of other times where I dream the song or I wake up with part of a song kind of playing as a soundtrack to a dream, and that's what happened with "Light You Up." I woke up one morning and I had all that "I just want to write you a..." It had been kind of playing over and over as the background of whatever dream I had, which I soon forgot about, but luckily the song kind of hung out. I sang it for my friend Chuck, and he said, "Man, are you asking me in on that?" Which is kind of a songwriter's way of saying, "Are you opening that song up to me? Because that's great, and I want to be a part of it." And I was like, "Yeah, man, let's write it together." So, we stayed up all night in Nashville--typically that's how Chuck and I write. We don't do a three or four hour songwriting session, we kind of do it in a day or two, and it's a very long, drawn out, concentrated deal. I've seen so many other writers try to write with the two of us, and it's a matter of concentration. You have to take breaks, but you have to stick with it, and you're not satisfied if the song's just okay, you just keep working on it. You don't want to take it too far, where you've worked it to death because that's part of the art too, knowing when to quit. I love that song, and Chuck and I write the lyrics to the verses together just staying up, having a little scotch, and just kind of trying to think of the most random things that we could think of that everybody wants, putting it together in a song, and making it rhyme.
MR: So, no surprise, I'm a big fan of yours. I'm also a big fan of Matthew Sweet's as well as Pete Droge's. Now, when the three of you got together, that was a celebration for me, when you guys formed The Thorns on Aware Records. You said that was what, '03?
SM: Yeah, I think that's when the record came out. We got together a little bit before that.
MR: What's the story behind that? How did that all come about?
SM: Well, it originally was a writing exercise. Originally, it was myself, Pete Droge, Marshall Altman--who is a songwriter, producer, and has been in A&R for Columbia too--and Glen Phillips from Toad (The Wet Sprocket). It was the four of us originally writing together, and we wrote "No Blue Sky" together, and a couple others. Then, when we sent those demos in, Aware and Columbia all kind of flipped out over the sound. They were like, "Hey, would you guys be into doing kind of a vocal, acoustic band?" You know, we all had to kind of think about it, and Glen Phillips in particular was like, "Man, I just got out of a band, and I'm trying to solo stuff." So, he punched out of it, and Marshall ended up having another obligation, but Pete and I were into the idea. So, my manager, Russell Carter, asked Matthew Sweet to join in and see what would happen if the three of us wrote together. So, that's really how it started, and when we wrote together, it was even more magical than before. It was just like the right combination. I have to give Russell Carter credit because he was a big part of it--he and Greg Latterman who really kind of thought this whole thing up. So, that's kind of how it started. We wrote a bunch of songs together--we wrote twenty songs in ten days, and eleven of them ended up on The Thorns record, I think. Then, we toured really hard for about two years. That was the hard part, I think, for The Thorns. It was just hard because you've got three guys that are used to being their own boss, and now no one is really in charge, but we're all kind of used to having things the way we want it on the road. So, that was the harder part, I think--the traveling.
MR: Yeah, you were three grownups as opposed to three brothers. When bands start out together really young, it's a different vibe.
SM: Yeah, that's totally true. We're three guys with three different types of successes, but we all produced our own records. We all were songwriters and leaders of our own bands, so it was interesting. Matthew really likes to be ahead of the beat, and Pete actually is the other way, where he likes to be on the very back end of the beat--for all you musicians out there, you know what I'm talking about. So, I was in the middle of them on stage, so there was always this like three beat thing happening. It was the funniest thing in the world, and both of them would be yelling at the drummer--not yelling, but going, "Come on, man, speed up!" And the other guy would be like, "Come on, man, slow down!" (laughs)
MR: (laughs) Nice.
SM: Yeah, it was a blast. I love the songs we wrote, and "No Blue Sky" I always felt like didn't get it's proper tracking. I felt like it was done too fast on The Thorns record because they wanted it to be a single and they didn't want it to be too slow. I think we kind of didn't do it right because we recorded it too fast, and the production was just too big and slick. So, that's why I put that song on my new record--to kind of do it like I always heard it, which was really stripped down. You know, my drummer is playing with his hands on the kit, and it's just a very acoustic-based song that way.
MR: Now, you have a song on Light You Up that you're not the author of called "The Ghost Of Johnny Cash." Can you talk about what inspired you to cover that song, and also about the song itself?
SM: Well, first of all, I've never been afraid to put a cover song on a record. You have to be careful about what kind of cover song you put on a record if you're a singer-songwriter. But James Taylor's biggest songs ever were not his songs, and he's obviously a great songwriter, so I've never had a real problem with it. The trick is to pick one that's right, and I had first heard Chuck Cannon do this song, he was one of the writers on it, and it just blew me away. I just felt like this was the song that we all needed to hear, that mentions Johnny Cash. This is the one that really describes, from what I know--and I'm pretty good friends with Kris Kristofferson, and he's told me a lot about Johnny--it just nails the whole deal, you know? So, typically, if I'm going to cover a song on a record, it's one that I wished I had written. That's part of it, and the other thing is that it needs to fit. We kind of had a place on the record for something like this, so I felt like it was the perfect song to do, and it hasn't been recorded other than on Chuck's album. So, I thought, "Hey, here's an opportunity to get the song out there, hopefully with a lot more listeners too." I really wish I had written that one, and I love interpreting it.
MR: It's a great song, and you give it such a personal spin, it's as if you had written it. Now, "Tinseltown" is sort of a reflection on the L.A. scene and all that. That had something to do with the thought behind this album as a whole, right?
SM: Well, here's what happened. As the songs were coming together and being written, they just started being written about Southern California, specifically, Los Angeles and Hollywood. It just kind of happened. I didn't set out to write a record--I never do that. It would probably be an interesting way to write a record, to go, "Okay, this record is going to be about the Midwest." I just typically start to have themes that roll in, and I start to notice it. This one was definitely L.A. and Hollywood heavy, and I kept asking myself why. I was like, "Gosh, you've never lived out there, and you've always had kind of a love-hate relationship." Maybe that's it, that I am fascinated by it, and I also kind of don't want to be there for very long before I'm ready to get back home. "Tinseltown" I wrote with Max Gomez, who is a great young singer-songwriter. He's twenty-three, and he's out of Taos, New Mexico. We wrote a few of the songs that are on this record, actually. He just has this fresh perspective that's very hip, and also very old school--his favorite artist is John Prine. He's a twenty-three-year-old songwriter, and you just don't have that a lot, you know? So, Max and I wrote that, and you know who I was thinking about? The character in the song who I was thinking about when singing it was Matthew Sweet because he's kind of a homebody. He lives up in the canyons, he doesn't really like getting out that much unless it's something really special, and I was kind of embodying him a little bit when we were writing that song. I was thinking, "Gosh, if somebody wanted to go downtown, down to Hollywood or whatever, what would Matthew say?" He would be like, "Man, I don't want to go downtown tonight." So, that was a little bit of an influence on that song--just knowing Matthew as well as I had in the past.
MR: Nice, I got to work with Matthew on a project called To Understand, which was a collection of all his material up to the A&M stuff, and it included the demos for "Divine Intervention" and "Girlfriend," which, at that time, I think was called "Good Friend."
SM: Yeah, and it's really slow, right?
MR: Yeah, it's a different vibe, but I know what you're talking about with the home body thing because I was at his house a couple of times when we worked on his collection together. By the way, one of the many enviable things he has is that old Fender Rhodes.
SM: Oh yeah, he's got so many things and so many instruments. There are two sitars, a real Fender Rhodes, and a couple of different organs. Was he a collector of the "Big-Eyed Children" paintings when you visited him last?
MR: Yes, I think he was. The animation on his early videos were perfect for him too. He really injects himself into his art personally, and I love that.
SM: It is really cool. He's definitely kind of multi-canvased that way. There's a lot going on. He's an interesting guy to work with, and he's very fast at songwriting too. I remember him coming up with certain lines with The Thorns where I was like, "How did you come up with that just like that?" I typically have to work kind of hard at the lyric before it's like I like it, so I was always fascinated by that. Melodies tend to come a lot easier for me, naturally. But yeah, I really like that song "Tinseltown," and Max Gomez is somebody you guys should check out because something's going to happen for Max. It's just a matter of time because he's so talented and such a good guy.
MR: You've got it. Send him our way.
SM: Yeah, I will. Also, he's from Taos, which I believe may be one of the only other solar-powered radio stations in the whole country. I know there's you guys, and the one in Taos is a really interesting place too. I don't know if you guys know each other.
MR: Yeah, we know of them, it's terrific. Let's talk about that for a second. I don't know how into it or not you are, but for me, it's just a bizarre thing that every business and home isn't using solar power and getting off the grid, especially in the Southwest. The sun is shining virtually every day of the year.
SM: You're talking about an energy source that, well, we will probably go before it will. I've wanted to do a solar tour, and I'm looking for sponsorship this next year to try and do that. Basically, you put on all the concerts with solar power, you've got the panels on top of the bus, you're going down the highway collecting energy, and then the shows can be powered with it. We have done a few shows solar-powered with a company in Atlanta that is a solar-powered recording studio called Tree Sound. Those guys are really, really hip, and they're into wind power as well. So, that's something that I'm kind of looking into doing, and I agree with you. I guess it's because it's still kind of expensive. The initial buy I think scares people off.
MR: But in the old days people used to invest in things for their home that were as expensive, it's just that the concept of solar power is a little more complicated than turning on the TV. There is an expense, of course, but if you have to replace your septic system, well, that's going to be an expense. You have your daily spending rituals and you have your expenses for your home, and my feeling is that this should just be one of them, you know?
SM: Yeah, and in a lot of states, you can get a break by doing that anyway. Obviously, you're going to save money, but you can also get a rebate to help pay for that initial cost. It's an interesting thing, I think it will happen, and I think it's starting to get more and more into the population. I'm hearing more and more people talk about it, and I feel like the more people like me that can tour around the country talk a little bit about it, and maybe even put it into action, hopefully, the better.
MR: It feels like a steadily building thing. Sometimes "green" issues end up being a ten minute concept. But solar power is always discussed, I guess because of the energy crisis that we always seem to be in--aka manipulated prices at the pump--and the real cost spikes of oil.
SM: Absolutely. I think it's totally building. I don't think it's going to go away. It's been around. When I was a little kid, my brother was really into the idea of solar power when he was twelve or thirteen and had built this little model home that was solar-powered. It was a really cool thing and that was the late '70s or whatever. So, it's been around, obviously, a long time. It's just going to take a little while, but it's also going to take the corporations. G.E. is one of the biggest solar power companies in America. They have a huge solar power sector, but they need to start talking about that, and commercials need to start happening related to that because, let's face it, everyone is sitting in front of their flat screen TV at this point. I've got to be the only person in the city of Atlanta who doesn't have a flat screen TV--we just try not to watch it a lot. I like them and whenever I see them, I go, "Wow, that's so cool. Look how big." But we just had our son a year ago, and I got to thinking that I'm not sure if I really want him growing up, sitting in front of this massive screen.
MR: Very smart. When you do that solar-powered tour, you come back and let's talk again, okay?
SM: That would be great. I'm going to keep working on it. I'm going to keep working on G.E.--they've got a pretty big base here in Atlanta, and I'm going to keep working on them, to try to help sponsor this whole thing.
MR: It's important, it just seems like we had a lot of energy to do something once, and now we're petering out. Like we said before, I think solar power is building, but I just wish there was a little bit more of a national initiative. So, I have a traditional question which is what is your advice for new artists coming up now?
SM: I always love the story I hear that Tom Waits told some kid. Some guy spotted Tom Waits a few years ago, went up to him, told him he was a fan, and said, "Listen, what is your advice for young, upcoming artists?" Tom was like, "Forget about it kid. Go home. Be a doctor. Be a lawyer." I don't know if I would say that though. What's kept me going this long--being in and out of popularity and having my own definition of success--is kind of always trying to remain true to what I'm doing, and not to change with the times. You're going to find something that you think is really cool, that you can utilize in the studio--an instrument, a sound, or a recording technique. But for the most part, you just need to do what you do and keep doing it. Those are the people that grow and change over the years, but they're not doing it to follow trends, you know? So, I think the big thing is to do what you do and do it well. For songwriters, you need to be reading because you've got to have words pouring in for words to pour out, and I think people don't even think about that sometimes. Stephen King talked about that in his book on writing. You've got to read, you know?
MR: I love how you phrased that, "You have to have words pouring in before you can have words pouring out."
SM: Yeah, and old school songwriters that I've met within Nashville say the exact same thing. You know, the Harlan Howards and the Hank Cochrans. Those guys were old school and they were great songwriters, and they read a ton, you know?
MR: It does seem like a lot of people are reading still--that's not going away. It just also seems like there is a lot of video game time and having to go through the complete season of whatever television show you're watching on DVD to compete.
SM: I played video games growing up, and I went to the arcade whenever I could to play Pac-Man and Battlezone, or whatever. But I also loved to read, always, and my dad really encouraged that. I think, just as a songwriter, you need to be able to take in words to pour them back out. It just taps into another part of the brain that sitting in front of a screen and taking in the images does not.
MR: Very wise advice. Sir, You're smart as a whip, as they say.
SM: Man, thanks so much for having me on. I can't wait to come and visit you guys (KRUU) again. Maybe when I do this solar tour we can meet up.
MR: Absolutely. Let's end with a discussion of one of your favorite songs from your new album. What should that be?
SM: I really like "Can't Remember Summer," the Michigan auto worker song.
MR: Nice. What's the story on that?
SM: Well, basically, when I was watching TV at some point, I was flipping on CNN and I saw a helicopter view of a soup line going into a church in Michigan. It was like scenes from the depression, and I was like, "Oh my God, this is really..."--I kind of tapped-in for a second and got that this is a huge thing. This industry that we once had in our country that was driving the whole thing, to a degree, is for the most part gone, and all those jobs are gone. A lot of these people were counting on a few more years, then retiring. So, this song's about one of those characters. It's a song sung from that person's point of view, and it has a chill about it, and you can kind of feel Michigan in the Winter somehow.
2. Light You Up
3. Murphy's Song
4. No Blue Sky
5. The Ghost Of Johnny Cash
7. I Knew A Girl
8. Catoosa County
9. You Make It Better
10. Can't Remember Summer
11. Love Will Find A Way
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)
A Conversation with Chely Wright
Mike Ragogna: First of all, let me pose a question in a rather pointed way. This is 2010, right?
Chely Wright: Yeah, last time I looked at the calendar it was.
MR: Okay. Why is someone's personal life anybody's business?
CW: Well that's a very multi-layered question.
MR: I'm talking about why this would be some sort of a concern anymore, like ever? It's unbelievable to that your private life is up for discussion.
CW: Well I'm with you, but I can tell you why. I can tell you exactly why--religious beliefs and what people are being told to echo. They're hearing it in their churches, and they're being told to tell young people, "Try not to be that. You're best to not be that." We tell our kids, "Do your best to not become a drug addict, do your best to not become a thief, and do your best to not become a homosexual." And we should not be saying all of those three, we should not be telling our young people to not be who they are as God made them to be.
MR: There's such a disconnect there. I guess there would be a disconnect with people who are blindly following a faith, incorporating whatever prejudices they want to incorporate into their belief systems. I was brought up Catholic, and I know a lot of Christians whose wiring doesn't go there. Yet prejudice seems to be the political football that's used by those that want to control others through fear. It just seems like in 2010, why is homosexuality even worthy of a debate?
CW: And those are political waters that are easy. When you get down and dirty, and you just want to get primal and divide people, that's the easiest way to do it. For politicians that want to divide people in the name of God, this is fodder for them, this is so easy it's like painting by numbers. When you want to go out and sling daggers of hate and division, this is the easiest one.
MR: And, like you said, It's been used and it's still used as a divisive play in order to get people to the polls if they want to defeat something else, some other issue.
CW: It's a trick. It's a manipulative trick, and unfortunately, most of the constituents that find themselves manipulated by it, they know not what they do. Most people who find themselves manipulated by this don't have the time to dissect it. They're busy working, feeding their kids, figuring out how to pay for three-and-a-half dollar per gallon gas.
MR: There you go. I interviewed Steve Forbert months ago, and we were talking about the oil spill. We were talking about things like how California killed the electric car because of interests that were more greed-oriented than humanity-oriented. It's almost like no matter where you turn, you're being manipulated, and you can always follow the buck. Even with what we were talking about earlier, that ignorance always seems to be a financial payoff in the end for somebody.
CW: In that documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car?, the same principles apply to this. I don't hold parents that responsible for echoing what churches tell them because when you have a baby, you take it to the church and say, "Help me raise this human being. Help me do the right thing." I feel like we have to stand up as a largely Christian society, that's why I joined the Faith in America board because of the damage that's being done to young people since parents are echoing what the churches are saying--"Try not to be gay." Well, there's no need to try not to be gay. You really should try not to become a junky, you should try not to shoplift--these are breaches in judgment, and we shouldn't judge people for these breaches in judgment because we're all human and sinners, and we all make mistakes. But I don't have a choice to love a man or a woman, I can't love a man. I've devastated men trying to love them the way they loved me, and I've devastated myself trying to love them the way they loved me. It's not a breach in judgment for me to be gay.
MR: It seems to be an older generation thing, most young people I know don't even care. This ridiculous type of prejudice seems to be going away culturally.
CW: Well, you're right. There is a new generation of understanding and young people who really have absorbed the notions of equality and liberty. Now, it's not as far reaching as you and I would like to believe, I have to say. It hasn't reached the far corners of small town America like you and I would like to believe. You are an educated man who's writing for a living, and you're finely evolved. I'm fortunate enough to make my living in the arts, and I've been lucky to travel around the world and hang out with smart and forward thinking people. But my tour bus also makes stops at every small town in America, and I see that we have a long, long way to go. I just got off the phone earlier with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, and I also work with GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), and today, the statistics are such that young kids who are in transgender identification situations are called, "faggot" or "dike" in nine out of ten school days. Nine out of ten days that they go to school someone calls them that, and that's nine days too many. I know we have come so far, but we have so far to go, and to go back to your question, "It's 2010, why are we still talking about this?" You've got me. It blows my mind. I thought ten years ago, "I'm never coming out in country music, surely someone else will do it." It's staggering to me that no one did it--no one in commercial country music. I just thought someone would come out or be outed before me.
MR: I lived in Nashville for a while, and there were known homosexuals who were stars--you just didn't utter their names, and, of course, they didn't come out. It was sort of this "happy ignorance," and it's really unfortunate that I would say something to you like, "Gee, it's really great that you did that." It should just be understood, period. It's just mind-boggling.
CW: But you know what? I was one of those who was whispered about; but no one knows for sure until you say it, and whispers don't make it to the airwaves in Albuquerque. Quite frankly, what if an eleven-year-old kid is being driven to school by his mom, and my record comes on the air and she says, "Oh I love that Chely Wright." What if that kid is about to go to school and get picked on? What if that is my chance for that mom to turn that radio station up and hear the disc jockey say, "Chely Wright came out as a lesbian today"? I took that chance, I cashed in my public equity, and that did happen on that Albuquerque radio station--that announcement happened. And that mom that says, "Chely Wright is my favorite. What a great American. What a nice lady." That did happen. And that eleven-year-old kid in the backseat who's getting picked on? He feels one less person alone. There's a difference in being a whisper--and you're right, we get protected in Nashville, although I was more in the closet than anybody I know of in Nashville. I'm not okay to be a whisper, I'm too proud of the steward I've been in my life, and at some point, it's a narrative of who I am as a human being. Am I really going to allow another fourteen-year-old kid to sit in his bedroom and feel like an alien?
MR: I read the Entertainment Weekly piece in which we learn some new facts about you. For instance, you gave Rascal Flatts their start. Let me ask you about that. How did you discover them?
CW: Well, I hired them both. Jay was my piano player, I hired him from a Contemporary Christian background in Nashville. I hired Joe Don sight-unseen out of a club in Oklahoma, and he drove through an ice storm and slept on my drummer's couch for an audition in Nashville. He kept following me around for an entire day in Nashville saying, "Do you want to hear me play now?" I said, "Just bring your guitar and follow me." We were just boppin' around the studio and I finally said, "You know you have the gigs, Joe Don, it's okay. You don't have to get out your guitar and play for me, I've heard your CD."
So, then we went to dinner and I knew how much he loved Vince Gill--he just kept talking about Vince Gill and how amazing he was. And I said, "Well, of course, everybody loves Vince Gill. You're a guitar player who sings high, of course you love him." So, I happened to get a phone call from Vince that said, "Hey Chely, let's go listen to the Bluebloods." They're great session players that were playing out at a club that night, and I said, "Okay, cool. I'll see you out there later." So, I didn't tell Joe Don that we were going to go hang out with Vince later and I said, "Come with me." I invited him and my drummer, Chris. So, we walked into this club, and Joe Don is saying, "Oh my God, that looks like Vince Gill in the back." Then, we're walking toward Vince's table and he's saying, "That is Vince Gill!" Lo and behold, we sat down at Vince's table. Joe Don and Vince got to have a conversation all night about guitars, and then we ended up touring with Vince.
Now, Joe Don tells everybody, "My first night in town, I got to meet Tony Brown, I got to be at the studio. Chely Wright took me to dinner, I got the job, and I got to meet Vince Gill." So, we worked together on the road for a couple of years, and I knew that they were working on a side thing--I think they were just trying to make some side-money. Jay said, "Chely, we recorded ourselves, would you mind listening to our CD?" And I said, "I'll listen to it," but I was thinking, "Oh no. Another couple of my band guys trying to get together a band, this is going to be awful," because it had happened before, and it's usually bad when that happens. So, I was driving to my house, I put their CD in my player, I heard two songs, and I hit stop, picked up the phone and called Jay and said, "Jay, there's something here." I said, "This is really, really good." Shortly after that, they were signed to Lyric Street, played their last few months with me, and the rest is country music history.
MR: (laughs) That is so cool. Now, fact number two from that same Entertainment Weekly piece: Patty Griffin saved your life.
CW: What did I say?
MR: You said, "I became aware of her during my breakdown in '05, which eventually led to her coming out. I was looking for anything divine. When I heard 'Living With Ghosts,' I felt like God was whispering in my ear."
CW: Yeah, I said it right. That's the truth. As a musician, I don't think that I am different than a non-musician. When something amazing happens in my life, I go to music, and when something devastating happens in my life, I go to music. During my breakdown, I sought out--or perhaps music found me in a way that I didn't even know. I became aware of Patty Griffin during that time, and that album, Impossible Dream, really kind of held me. There were days that I laid on the floor of my bedroom in Nashville. I mean there were entire days, and I don't want to say they were wasted because I was absorbing that music, but there were days that that's all I did--lay on the floor and hit repeat on Patty Griffin records. She changed the way I wrote songs, and she freed me from the constraints of commercial songwriting. You understand what I'm talking about. As a music writer, you understand the commercialism of Nashville songwriting.
MR: I'm so over the whole Nashville cheesy pop thing. Where's Merle when you need him?
CW: Again, there's a certain craft to it, and I don't want to begrudge the people who have figured that out. To a large degree, I made my living making commercial country music, and I love that part of my history. But I'm not nineteen anymore, I'm thirty-nine.
MR: Well, I also noticed, by the way, when I put your CD in my iTunes, the "genre" that comes up reads "folk," not "country."
CW: Oh, does it really?
MR: Yeah, so, some entity has designated you as folk now. That's interesting because when I listened to your album--which we should probably get to--one of the things I noticed is that it maintains your country style, but it does feel like it's embracing more of a Jakob Dylan meets Court Yard Hounds-ish kind of sound.
CW: Wow, cool.
MR: Maybe it has to do with how you approached this, as the person you are now, embracing other things besides needing to have a country hit.
CW: Oh, wow. Thank you. You've just given me some very high compliments. I want to stew in those--I want to wallow around in how that felt.
CW: In listening to the music that I did during my breakdown, quite frankly, I had kind of dipped my toe in it on my last record, The Metropolitan Hotel, which really was a low selling record for me, but my most critically acclaimed. To that point, really what I found success in, personally and creatively, was writing what I know and doing my best to suspend my intellect. I made kind of a half-assed attempt to do that on my last record, and on this record, I couldn't have employed my brain if I had tried. I didn't even know where it was. I really kind of lost my mind, and that was such a good thing for me, creatively. You read about the great poets, painters, and creative people of legend, and they all were crazy. For once, I finally lost my mind. It was so good for me.
MR: You know, that line, "I lost my mind"? When you think about that, it just means you let your mind get out of the way and let the creative process happen.
CW: Right, and I think I always probably got in my own way. Art meets commerce is always a bad intersection. When you're trying to make anything for the masses, something has got to give. When you're trying to make food for the masses, you get fast food, and when you're trying to make art for the masses, you get fast art. You get what you get.
MR: That's a really brilliant point. It's like you've got to be in the moment when you're doing your craft or even every day at work. I mean, the people that are multi-tasking--what are they really getting done, you know?
CW: Right, there's a point of diminishing return. What I learned through the process of rolling around on my floor, listening to Bob Dylan, which I admit this with a lot of guilt and shame, I'd never really listened to too much. Shame on me. I'd really never explored Tom Petty the way that a singer-songwriter should, but I've corrected that.
MR: Let me ask you where you would rate Blood On The Tracks?
CW: Oh, a thirteen.
MR: (laughs) What would you rate as his "one"?
CW: What would I rate as his best one?
MR: Yeah, we're looking at it differently. In the pecking order of Bob Dylan albums, where would you place Blood On The Tracks?
CW: Oh, gosh. Well, I don't want to fall in line just because I'm on the phone with you, but it's really hard to beat that one.
MR: That's kind of why I threw that one out there. Though Blonde On Blonde and his earlier albums were brilliant, for me, there was something about--wait, I may be wasting our time...
CW: God, no. This could never be a waste of time.
MR: Blood On The Tracks, for me, was like a turning point, where I felt like I could relate totally to everything he was saying on that record, even on lighter tracks like "Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts." Even in the wackier, more fun moments, there was still a groundedness...what a brilliant album. It's probably in my top five albums with Joni Mitchell's Court And Spark, Paul Simon's There Goes Rhymin' Simon, and albums like that.
CW: There's a reason that so many people who write songs, like you and me, site that as one of their top five records of all time. If anybody has ever squeezed themselves out on tape, it's that one.
MR: (laughs) That's a good way to put it. And I'll never understand why "Tangled Up In Blue" wasn't a huge hit. I think it's an American classic.
CW: Well, look at the records that came out during that time. It's all relative, and it's so funny to look at the landscape of what came out at that time. You wonder what gets lost in the shuffle, you go back and look at records like this Conway Twitty album that just blows my mind, though the title has escaped me. It didn't even have one hit on it, but I think it was his best record. But it was the year that the new generation of hit makers came out, and he just got kind of retired. He became the old guy. Now, you mentioned Joni Mitchell. Let me tell you how obsessed with Joni Mitchell I became during this process. I didn't know much about her either, but I was--do you know who Steve Buckingham is?
CW: Steve is a very good friend of mine, and a guy that I confided in early on about not only my breakdown, but the reason for my breakdown. He'd say, "Let me come over and hear your songs and talk to you." When he got there and listened, he said, "What are you doing on that guitar?" He's an old session player who has played on a lot of hit records, and he said, "That's fascinating, what you're doing with your tunings." I couldn't get my fingers to do what I was hearing, so I just started turning my knobs. I'm a piano player, so I just decided on this record that I was going to start turning knobs until I could get the voicings I want. So, I made up these crazy tunings, and he said, "Where'd you get that tuning?" I said, "I made it up," and he said, "So, you didn't go to some Joni Mitchell website?" I was like, "No. Did she do alternate tunings?" He said, "Well, she was famous for it. You've got to come over and watch this documentary about her crazy tunings."
So, I watched this documentary about her whacked-out tunings, and I realized that none of my tunings are actually the ones she used, which I was glad about. That way I couldn't be accused of ripping off Joni Mitchell, but then I started discovering her body of work, which is mind-boggling. So, I really kind of feel brand new about music. I feel like I have this old country past, but when I hear Bob Dylan's Live At Carnegie Hall album, which is, I think, the best live recording in all of music, it still gives me chill bumps. Then, I hear Joni Mitchell and that crazy tuning stuff she was doing, and it makes me want to just jump off of a building. I feel like two different artists. I feel like before breakdown, BBD, and after breakdown, ABD.
MR: (laughs) I was lucky enough to work with Joni on a compilation of her Geffen and Warner recordings and a box set, and I learned so much about her. When people bring up negative things she says, I remind them it's because Joni doesn't have a filter, and most great artists were lacking them as well. To me, it seems like since she's a fountainhead of creativity, that stops her from having a filter because if she had a filter, then it would afflict her creativity. You know what I mean?
CW: Thank God. I can't believe you know her. I can't believe you got to be near her.
MR: It was brilliant, a beautiful period. It was always fun to be eating dinner together somewhere and have folks like Warren Beatty stop by and pay tribute to her. Okay, that was kind of a wild sidebar, let's get back to the third point from the Entertainment Weekly piece. That is: "She and God have an understanding," and your quote is, "I felt like there were two Gods, the one they told me about in church that I should fear, and the one that knew my s**t. The one I believe in told me not to lie. When I was on my knees and said, 'Tell me what to do,' God said, 'Tell the truth.'"
CW: That's true, she quoted me correctly.
MR: You know, you would think that anyone with a functional mind would understand the concept that God doesn't hate anybody. Isn't Christianity supposed to be based in love?
CW: Yeah, it just doesn't make sense to me. God also blessed me with discernment. Even before I knew to pray for discernment, I was given it. I have a spiritual compass that God gave me, but I was being told about this God at church that was going to burn me in the fires of Hell, once I died. That was really scary. Then, when I got home, there was this other God that was on the piano bench with me that was giving me songs to write. And when I'd climb a tree, there was God up there. I never felt alone. I felt the presence of this being or this "something." So, I thought, "I'm supposed to keep this secret from this being that's with me?"
MR: That being is supposed to know everything, right?
CW: Yeah, this dude, not a bearded guy in a robe, but this God--this present power that's with me--I'm supposed to keep a secret from that being? Or am I supposed to run around with this abiding fear of this poster on the wall in Sunday school of this guy who's going to burn me up and throw me to another guy in a red suit with a pitchfork. I don't get that, and it didn't make sense to me. So, the God of love and light won out, and it changed everything for me. It changed the course of everything. I knew I was okay, I just knew it.
MR: My friend's son once had a nightmare about burning in Hell. Now, he didn't hurt him, but he pinched the little guy just a tiny bit. The child said, "Ow! Why'd you do that?" My friend asked his son, "You felt that, right?" The boy said, "Yeah, so?" and his father told him, "Well, that's because you have a nervous system. Now, when you die, do you have a body?" The child answered, "No," and the father continued, "Okay. Well, your body has these nerves, and that's why you feel everything. So, if you die and you don't have a body anymore, are you going to feel like you're burning up? You don't have a nervous system!" It sounded like a brutal lesson to me when I heard it, but I realized that it probably saved his son a lifetime of fear.
CW: Well, way to go. Nice job. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) It's sort of like, if somebody thinks that through for just--how long did it take for me to tell you that story, fifteen seconds? If somebody just takes fifteen seconds to think that through, it sounds as crazy as it is, you know?
CW: Right. We're supposed to be taught that God's love is unfathomable. Now, Jeffrey Dahmer's parents knew that he ate people, and they still went to see him in prison and said, "Son, I love you." He ate people. And I'm supposed to believe that if I fall in love with a woman, then my God will condemn me to a fiery Hell? He ate people! And his parents went to see him and said, "Son, I love you." God's love is supposed to be that kind of love times infinity. This is not adding up, people. Come on, it's crazy.
MR: Alright, though I'm thoroughly enjoying our tangential conversation, let's discuss your latest album. Lifted Off The Ground. I wanted to start by talking about the song "Heavenly Days" on which you teamed up with Rodney Crowell. I especially admire the lyric, "Dare to be different, dare to be true." How did you get hooked-up with Rodney Crowell?
CW: Well, it happened in the most odd way. One would think that I decided to come out, wrote a bunch of songs about freedom, and went and asked Rodney to make my coming out record. You have perhaps read the book, and if you haven't, I hope you do because the timeline is much more different, odd, and perfect.
MR: Yes, I read it. Very personal.
CW: When I was writing these songs, I had no idea I was actually writing my next record. I was halfway through making this record with Rodney before I decided to come out. Rodney did not, of course, know that I was gay until halfway through the making of this record. I did not approach Rodney about making this record, Rodney approached me. I had sought him out in my pajamas a couple of months into my breakdown, and all I wanted to ask him was, "Am I dying? I need to know if I'm dying." He wrote on the back of my guitar, that day I showed up at his house in my pajamas, "Dear Chely, I love your broken heart, and someday you will too." About a week after I went to see him, he said, "Do you have those songs you played for me on tape?" I said, "Well, I have my work tapes that I do each time I write a song. They're just little home studio recordings." He said, "Bring them over, and come have a meal." I said, "No, thanks." At that point, I was embarrassed that I'd even sought him out just to ask him if I was dying of a broken heart, and I said, "I don't want to come over and eat." Then he said, "Well, drop the songs in the mailbox." So, I did, and every couple of weeks, he'd just email me, "Songs?" and I'd make a pilgrimage to his mailbox and leave songs.
This went on for about nine months. No phone calls, no dinners, no "friend" nothing--we weren't hanging out. Then, he called me and said, "You have the option to go to dinner with me on Friday night or Saturday night." I went to dinner with him, we sat down, and he said, "I'm not going to beat around the bush. You need to make a record, and you need to let me help you make it." I said, "What, a record?" He said, "You do want to make a record, don't you?" I said, "Well, I hadn't thought of it. Why would you, Rodney Crowell, want to help me make a record?" He said, "Well, seldom does a producer get to see someone really going through a change and is giving into it. You're really giving into it. I'm emotionally invested in these songs, and I want to make a record with you." I said, "Do you need money to...," and he said, "I don't need your money. Do you have a label at this time?" I didn't, so he said, "Fine, when you're ready to make your record, then we'll make it." I said, "I'm not ready now. These songs are still coming to me." He said, "Great, when you're ready, we will." We didn't start that record for another nine months. So, the next summer, we started the record--that was the summer of '07, I think May is when we started it.
We were six songs in, and I was realizing, "Holy crap. I've written all these songs by myself," because he and I didn't write "Heavenly Days" until the record was completely finished, in the can, and then in '09, we wrote "Heavenly Days" kind of as an addendum and put it on the record. But I realized that I had all these songs, written by myself, and I had to go out there and promote this record, where people are going to ask me, "Who are these songs about?" I talk to journalists when I make a record, people like you, and they were going to say, "Who's this relationship..." or "Who is this break up about?" As it stood, nobody knew about a relationship I was having. What was I going to do, make up a fake boyfriend from Buenos Aires? I realized my truth was, again, hunting me down. I could see myself back in that dark, dark place. You know, our truth is stitched to our feet, and no matter how hard you try to outrun it, you can't. I was feeling that layering of my truth, and I felt God continuing to whisper in my ear, "Stand up, stand up, stand up, this is all I expect of you."
Rodney came to my house one day, flew in from LAX, and said, "I need to land in Nashville, and I need to come talk to you." He came over, sat on my porch, and he said, "I gossiped about you, and I want to apologize. People have asked me as long as we've been making this record. They've said, 'I hear you're working with Chely. She's great, what a great gal?'" And he said, "Then they'd always whisper, 'But isn't she gay?'" He said, "I always say, 'I don't know, we've never talked about it,' but I flew out to L.A. four days ago and I participated in a four hour conversation about your sexuality. I'm here to tell you I did that and that I apologize." I think that Rodney thought that I would melt into some kind of admission, "Oh, Rodney, I am gay." But I didn't. I just thanked him for telling me something I surely would never have found out.
That night, he left, and I thought about it and prayed about it. Then, I called him the next morning and said, "Can you come back over?" He came over, and we sat on that same porch, and I said, "Rodney, I am gay, and I am going to come out." I said, "There's one song I held back from you the entire time. Out of all the songs I've written in the past couple of years, it's the musical heart of all the things I've written, and I've held it back from you because it clearly depicts my being in a relationship with a woman." He said, "Play it for me," and I said, "No, I'll email it to you. Just go home now." So, I went to my computer, emailed him the song "Like Me," opened up a word document, wrote the cover page for my book, Like Me, and I started my book on that day.
MR: Beautiful. What was the process like when you were writing it?
CW: It's the hardest thing I've ever done, and the most profound experience of my life. I'm really thankful that I have had fourteen years of therapy under my belt. I know myself better than most people I know, but I needed every tool that I possess of self-introspection and self-awareness to write this book. All of the work I've done on myself, especially in the past few years, seemed to coalesce during the writing of this book. I wrote it myself, I didn't have a ghostwriter, which most celebrities who write books have. It was an amazing, profound experience, and hard. It was the hardest thing I've ever done.
MR: Another of my favorite songs on this record is "Broken," although it's a toss up between that and "Notes To The Coroner"--I love your sense of humor in that one. In "Broken" you have my favorite line: "Why can't you just believe in me? Not everyone is an enemy." To me, that says, "I'm doing the best I can, what do you want from me?" I totally relate to it, it's so reasonable.
CW: That's the best thing, as a writer, if you can get the listener to take it on as their own. and to see themselves in it. That's great and that's a compliment. Really, I'm not a cynical person, but we all find that the older we get, we bring that baggage with us. That song really--I know the title is "Broken"--but it's really a song about hopefulness. It's about, "I'm a little beat up, you've been a little beat up, but let's join hands and jump. Let's give it a shot, love might be waiting for us. I know we're both broken, but broken can be pretty."
MR: Nice. What advice do you have for young people?
CW: My best advice for young people, even if you're going to school and trying to get your masters, or if you're trying to be a music star, follow that compass within. If it feels too good to be true and it feels like somebody is offering you something that you shouldn't be getting, you probably shouldn't. There aren't a lot of short cuts in life. You know, in school, when you earned your "A" and you know in school when you haven't earned your "A" because you happened to look at your neighbor's paper? Your internal compass and your spiritual compass tells you. I guess my spiritual compass told me to do some things that I should have done a long time ago, and I'm finally honoring that compass. I'm so glad I named my album Lifted Off The Ground because it's how I feel. I guess that's my advice. Honor that compass within.
2. Heavenly Days
3. Hang Out In Your Heart
4. Notes To The Coroner
5. Snow Globe
6. Like Me
7. That Train
8. Damn Liar
9. Wish Me Away
10. Object Of Your Rejection
11. Shadows Of Doubt
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)
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