The ATV Interview: David Wilcox
Wednesday, November 03, 2010
There are quite a few good shows in town this week, but I’m particularly excitedabout the pending Cleveland return for singer/songwriter (and Mentor, OH native) David Wilcox.
His engaging blend of songs and stories first drew me in when I discovered his 1991 release Home Again (his third album and second major label release), an album that found inspiration both in his own life and the experiences of others (see “Chet Baker’s Unsung Swan Song” for one particularly magnificent example of this).
Nearly 20 years later, Wilcox has 17 albums to his credit, including his brand new studio release Reverie.
With the release of Reverie, his 13th studio album overall (available online now and in regular stores on November 22nd), Wilcox is stripping things back to the basics. The album was recorded live in front of a studio audience at The Monastery, a Cincinnati recording studio owned by longtime Wilcox collaborator and producer Ric Hordinski. For longtime fans that miss “Old David” (a term used by David himself in his new website biography), there’s a lot to love about this new album both in terms of songs and the sonics of the sound.
The recording crackles with the energy of a typical Wilcox live performance and delivers a vibe that quite frankly has been occasionally AWOL on some of his more recent albums.
Wilcox returns to Cleveland for a show on Saturday night at the Arts Collinwood Cafe (located near the Beachland Ballroom, order tickets here) and that seemed like a good enough excuse to spend some time with the man himself talking about Reverie in addition to his many other activities. David was very generous with his time and we had a great chat. Read on….
I think that each one of your albums has an interesting point of inspiration, particularly your last few albums. What triggered the idea to record this one live in the studio?
I guess it was from the experience of the record before, feeling like the performances were being heard for the first time when I rehearsed with those musicians. We’d go through the changes and I’d talk through dynamics and stuff but I wouldn’t sing the lyrics to them until we were recording. So the stuff that got recorded on the record, the musicians were the audience, they were hearing the songs for the first time and reacting to it. And I love what happens to me when I play for people. There’s this connection that has been missing on some studio records in the past and so I thought “you know, I don’t really want to do a live record, because I love the clarity of the studio sound, but if I could get an audience to come into the studio….” You know, these days you can just put something on your website and people come.
So we had about 70 people in this wonderful studio [The Monastery] that my friend Ric [Hordinski] has in Cincinnati. It used to be an old church and it has beautiful acoustics and the audience was very willing to go the distance to make this a great recording. During the songs they were really quiet and there’s no applause at the end because I didn’t want that disruption. I love when a record speaks right to the listener and it doesn’t sound as if it’s from some place where you weren’t.
In order to make it feel like a studio record in terms of the quality of the sound, the audience was really quiet and there was no applause at the end. There were two separate sets of of mics - the studio mics went right into the control room and the other mics, my normal sort of road mics, went to the tiny little sound system that was only in the back of the room. So it wasn’t picked up a lot on the microphones, but it did add an interesting kind of reverb sound. The room had this beautiful kind of fullness to it. It was kind of the best of both worlds - I think I finally found my way to record!
You alluded to it, but listening to this album, there’s definitely a vibe that I’m familiar with hearing in your live performances that has been missing at times with some of your more recent recordings, so it’s cool to hear that.
Yeah, I agree and it’s fun. When we first finished this session, I listened back and I thought “well, it’s either got way too much room or the room is really good!” [Laughs] I had to make that decision. It’s unfixable, the sound of the room is there on the mics, so it’s either great or it’s trash. And after listening to it about three times I figured “well, it doesn’t sound like normal records, but it sounds cool!” [Laughs] I like it.
With a studio audience in front of you, were you able to get the performances you were looking for down on tape rather quickly, or did you have to go back and do some additional work on it after the audience had gone?
We didn’t do anything after the audience had gone. We recorded two nights and one of the songs I recorded twice on one night, just to make sure I got it. But most everything was from the first night and that was the surprising part because the first night, I was being videotaped, so I was nervous about a whole other level of stuff. My perception of the two nights was that the second night was better, but when I listened back, most of the songs are from the first night. There’s only like three [songs] from the second night. There was just that wonderful sort of edge to it that..sometimes I think that I play better if I’m somehow not thinking too much. There are some nights when you’re feeling really rough and you think “oh man, I should have canceled this gig, but I’ve gotta do it now.” You get out there and all you can think about is “oh god, don’t cough in the middle of a line.” Afterwards, somebody comes up and says “oh, you were great, you were brilliant” and you say “oh yeah right, I was just about to die” and they say “no, that’s the best I’ve ever heard you!”
So it’s a wild sort of thing that happens mentally where if you’re concentrating really hard just on like, between the lines you have to breath in, but when you’re sick, you can’t breath in too fast or you’ll cough, just breath in slow. So you’re spending all of your concentration on the basics like breathing and it’s funny what that does to a performance. Because it takes you down to a level where you’re not second-guessing, you’re just sort of at your most primal state, feeling the raw emotion. It’s wild but when I had way too much to think about, it put me in this state where the music bypassed my brain! [Laughs]
You’re in the midst of a very prolific period of recording with this being your third album in the past three years and with each one, it seems like you’re stripping things further and further back to the basics.
There were other musicians on Open Hand and I loved that, but the interesting thing about me and recording is that there’s this joke that I have with my manager about like “yeah, I just wrote this song and I just did this demo and I’m going to learn how to sing it better.” And he emails me back and says “oh no, please don’t, I like it just the way it is.” “Yeah, but that crack in my voice, that’s not good,” and he says “that crack in your voice is where the song comes out.” So my normal way of recording is that I always record a song as soon as I’m finished writing it and usually I’ll take those recordings and listen to them a bunch and go into the studio. And then I’m doing an imitation of something I’ve already done where the first time it has this sort of exploration feel to it. I don’t know where exactly the phrasings going to go, I’m just kind of on the fly. I think that in the future, I’m probably going to do more recordings with the demos, like when I’m making the demo, instead of doing it quick in GarageBand, I’ll go ahead and do it in Pro Tools, just in case this happens to be the moment that I sing it best. And then I’ll have those songs available if I want to just finish those first versions.
It seems to me like you’ve become a lot more open about sharing the stuff that you’re recording, by putting it on Youtube for people to hear, for example. The technology is just a lot more immediate now.
It’s so fun. I just did a song called “Worst Enemy” that I did just with a quick little studio thing at home and I put it up on the web. And one of the comments on Facebook was “oh, it would be so cool to hear this song with horns!” So I met this friend out at Rocky Mountain Folks Festival that said “yeah, I’ll put horns on it, just send me the track.” So he downloaded the tracks and recorded his horn parts and then uploaded them back to my iDisc and the next thing you know, we’ve got a horn section. So I put that up on Facebook and I love the fact that it used to be that there was this limbo that happened between finishing a record and it’s going to come out in three months or six months. And now, if you’re finished with a song, you hit send and people hear it two minutes later. It’s pretty cool!
It seems like you’ve been able to maintain a good amount of independence with what you do with your website and your ability to put music out there as you want to. And yet you also maintain a little bit of the old business model of having a record label, with What Are Records handling the label side of things for you. But it must be a good relationship, because you’ve put out 7 albums with them.
Yeah, they’re great people. It’s sort of the future of what record companies are going to evolve into, even the big ones. It will eventually be more fair and more of a service-for-hire kind of thing instead of the record company owning everything. You make your record, you bring it to them, you talk about where you want to spend the money and how you want to do promotion and they get the work done. They’re in it for the right reasons - it’s a good match. At this stage, there’s a small percentage of the people still buying the discs compared to the downloads but the wild part is that the recording is so much cheaper and everything else [that] it’s still worth doing it. I don’t know how long it will still be worth doing. At this point, it just makes a little bit of profit, but it’s still fun to have something you can hand to someone or sell at shows, so it’s a good thing.
Getting back to the new record, on the night of the recording the audience was prepped to expect nothing but new material and none of the old favorites. Although you played old favorites, I remember seeing a similar show in Mentor prior to the release of Turning Point where you played nearly all of the songs on the album, even though I didn’t know at the time that a new album was on the way. Have you always been so open about sharing the new material prior to it being officially out there?
It is my downfall and it’s definitely my weakness, I play new stuff. It’s something that if you do it in balance, it’s good, it gives some spice to the show. I’ve always done it way too much, I’ve always played just what I want to play and usually that means the stuff that is brand new. It’s kind of frustrating when people come back to the CD table and they say “oh, that song about the blah blah blah, which album is that on?” And [my manager] Tom says “well, that’s not out yet.” And then they say “oh, so is that on the new one just coming out” and Tom says “no, actually it’s on the next one after that” and they look at him “well, where am I going to get that?” It’s always been a weakness of mine to just play new stuff. As a matter of fact at one show, D.C. I think, I was an hour into the set and someone calls out a request from the crowd and they say “Dave, can you play something from ONE of your records?” [Laughs]
Marc Cohn just put out a new covers album and the gist of the record is that it is all songs from 1970. When I saw him last year, he talked about how much the songs that he heard on WMMS [here in Cleveland] growing up inspired his career in music and inspired him as an artist. In the lyrics to “Ireland” on the new CD, you reference Cleveland and how the music got you through. On the surface, the lyric indicates that things might have been tough for you growing up here in Cleveland. Where did music come into the picture for you?
Well, even before ‘MMS, I was listening to WNCR and there were so many great songs that were completely different genres. I have recordings from my dad’s reel-to-reel tape recorder, I would record hours and hours of that, because the personality behind the song choice, there was real continuity of subject matter and juxtaposition of ideas. You could tell that there was heart and soul behind who was playing the music. DJs like Jimmy Perdue, I should Google him, I don’t know if he ever did anything after WNCR, but it was fascinating to me to hear somebody who was playful and broke all of the rules. It was fascinating. All of that stuff that I heard back then is now still being played on classic rock stations and it feels to me like nowadays you walk into most radio stations and there isn’t anybody there. Music was a huge deal for me and it did give me a lot of hope that there was a way of living where I felt like sort of belonged in my skin. This life could feel like I was home and the first place that I got a hint of that possibility was music. So it was definitely life support back then, I wouldn’t have lasted without it.
In concert, your storytelling prior to the beginning of each song often reveals an interesting tidbit of information that otherwise might be very subliminal and difficult to pick up. Hearing that Springsteen’s Devils and Dust album was a source of inspiration behind “We Call It Freedom” is probably something that I wouldn’t have figured out without hearing that story prior to the song on the album.
That’s why that one story remains, just because I think that’s an interesting compliment to that. Most of the irony in the songs, I figured was obvious enough, but that one, I figured there could be a few who just absolutely wouldn’t get the sarcasm. So I decided to do it that way because it wasn’t offensive to people that disagree with it. It has this compassion at some level about “okay, really they’re just trying to protect their country and yet, what’s left of their country after they protect it in that way?” I figured that story needed to stay there but all of the other intros went away out of the live recording.
On the Live Songs and Stories album there’s another Bruce story prior to “Spin,” and it would be easy to say “oh yeah, he’s a storyteller, of course he likes Bruce,” but I think that what you do is different. Besides Bruce, if we were looking at your record collection when you were growing up, what were some of the key albums for you?
In terms of storytelling, Gamble Rogers, who was a storyteller/guitar player. He created a world just like Garrison Keillor did, he created a whole world where the characters, you met them one at a time, but they all related to each other. The way I came up playing in a pretty tough room meant that if I just started into a song, people would keep talking, but if I spoke to them, they would look around like “oh my god, is he talking to me?” And I had this opportunity to get their attention with compelling stories. And then if the songs were the soundtrack to the story, then I could keep their attention, but I had to go right into a story again to hold that. It was what I used to call a “water ski gig,” because if you slow down, you sink.
So I would just keep it coming with continuity and it was the continuity that held their attention. I never let them feel like I was just creating a background, I left them with the impression that if they stopped listening, I would stop talking. I was only there to speak right to them. Since we hear most of our music out of machines, people really have to be reminded, minute to minute that yes, I really mean this, I’m speaking to you. This is not just a collection of sounds, this is communication. So yeah, Gamble was huge in that regard because he was really good at keeping the crowd present and changing up stuff in order to make it feel really present tense.
This is embarrassing, but there’s one song that I remember making a huge difference in my life when I was probably 11 years old, maybe 10. And it was the guy who did “Abraham, Martin and John,” Dion. He did a song called “Sit Down Old Friend” and I never would have heard it except that it was on a sampler that my brother had called Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies, it was a Warner Brothers double album sampler and there was that one song that was unlike anything else that I’d ever heard. It was a song that was speaking with the kind of intensity as if your best friend is dying and you’ve got to say something that matters, you’ve got to make the time count. I loved the honesty and the sincerity and yet the complex guitar and the intriguing melody.
It’s a song that I remember coming to when I was alone and I got this sense that life is going to get better, because there’s access to a more soulful real kind of [music]. People dare to be really alive, not just wasting their time on distractions. To me it was just proof that existed, and that vibrancy of life was possible. That was a song that I probably wouldn’t be a musician if it wasn’t for that song. That was a song that really absolutely woke me up.
Another one that made a huge difference was the Blood on the Tracks [album] by Bob Dylan. That was the stuff that I first started to play, that and Joni Mitchell, that whole record’s in Open D and I started to learn open tunings first [with] Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and a bunch of other stuff. The fact that it combined the simplicity and the accessibility of the guitar, it doesn’t take a lot of hand tricks to make the guitar really powerful and moving. To me it was the people’s guitar, it was accessible and it was something that you could use, not to show what you can do with the instrument, not to prove your prowess, but to feel how the instrument affects you. You could take that one oasis of life and acclimate to your heart feeling that good and come to the rest of your life with that standard set and say “this is how I want to feel in my work, in my relationship, in my kids and in my community.” Because if you don’t have that standard to go by, you wouldn’t know how much to ask for, you wouldn’t know what’s possible. It would be like “my cup runneth over,” but you’ve got a symbol, so next time bring a bigger cup! [Laughs]
Jumping back a bit, you mentioned that there was a video recording of the sessions for the new album, is there a good chance that we’ll see a DVD released from that?
There is! It was a five camera shoot and it came out really interesting and there’s one of them on the web, the “Little Fish” song. Most of the songs on the new album were recorded.
You recently played an orchestral gig in Idaho. For somebody who usually plays solo, what was it like to be surrounded by so many musicians?
That was a big mother! It was really fun. I don’t know if you have had friends that have ridiculous old sports cars, but there’s a friend of mine who has a Jaguar XK-E that has this 12 cylinder engine, which is really hard to keep running. On a good day when you’ve just had it tuned up, it’s an amazing thrill and the rest of the time it’s like “yeah, I gotta get some work done on that, it’s not running right.” So the orchestra was just like that, it was a bitch to tune and it was just a thrill to ride!
Let’s talk about the Wilcox Weekend that you did this year. In these times when many artists do the cruise thing and invite a bunch of their friends to come play, it seems like you wanted to do something a little bit different. And for the people that came out, it seems like the experience went far beyond what they were expecting. What were you looking to get out of the experience?
Well, we had done a cruise before and this time I loved the community aspect of it. The cruise has the escape kind of thing and the whole image of it is “let’s get away from our lives and be with this person.” The community aspect [of Wilcox Weekend] is more “let me show you where I live and let me show you what you guys have in common and let me help you guys stay in touch and let’s remember that we support each other.” I come to them with my gratitude of making it possible for me to work at what I love for a lifetime, which is the longest relationship a musician has, it’s with his audience.
Their response was “isn’t it great to meet all of these people who have this music in common.” [And they] find out that in some ways it’s kind of this pre-sort so that the people that show up for that event find that there are friends and then there’s friends they haven’t met yet. It’s a pretty radical sorting to have this music in common, you get people from the edges of the bell shaped curve, so to speak, so they wind up being a really interesting crowd of people. So I loved listening to them and as we’re organizing the next one, we’re in touch with them saying “so what do you want for next year.” It’s really fun to get their input and realize that the thing that they take away is mostly being with each other and that’s a fun thing.
The “Musical Medicine” section on your website is really cool. I think you’ve always done a really good job of categorizing your songs during your live performances, but it’s interesting to see so much of your catalog broken down into specific sections.
I think what’s interesting about that is that there are a lot of songs, songs that we all love, that if you asked “what is that song really about, could you paraphrase it?” You might get some theories but you wouldn’t get any consistent consensus about “oh, well that song’s about this.” There’s a lot of songs that are just like a dream or something that you have to interpret. There’s a lot of my songs that are really accurate depictions of a particular emotional state, a particular place that I got caught and a particular way that I got free. So they’re tools that if your toolbox is well organized, you can reach for that tool again when you need it and I love that about music. Because so many of these songs have been milestones of my gradually becoming a really satisfied person. And as I said when I started music, that wasn’t the case at all. I had one little glimpse of how good my heart could feel and I thought that nothing felt as good as a good song. And little by little, I’ve found a way to apply that to a lot of things.
Your new website bio references songs on the new CD that speak “straight from the heart, just like the old David Wilcox always used to do.” In your mind, what happened to the old David?
I think the level of trust that I had with my audience has grown and they’re ready for some storytelling that comes from interesting characters. It’s not like it’s new, I mean, Randy Newman, Richard Thompson and all kinds of the really great writers have been doing it for years and years. I love the theatrical sort of element because there are characters on this record that frighten me. And yet, what better way to bring up a topic than to do it like homeopathic medicine where it pushes you in a way that gets you to push back.
Related to that, what’s your reaction to the people that perceive that the “storytelling David” in their eyes has been replaced by a David that’s a little bit more preachy than what they were used to in the past?
Now that’s difficult, yeah, I know. I love the songs that have room to say “here’s where I’ve found some of my joy,” but not say so much “you have to do it the way I do it” or stuff like that. I think I’ve lightened up a lot on that. I know that’s a lesson I wish I had learned six records ago and yet I feel like it’s just something I had to go through for my own sort of sanity and those songs taught me things I needed to know. If I had known those lessons better I could have reflected them in song with a lighter touch but I was just learning them. And I think most people who are just learning something, the way they learn is to try to teach it and that sometimes comes off way too heavy handed. So yeah, I agree and I think I’m learning a better balance now but I’m grateful for what music has done for my life and I wouldn’t want to trade that.
Your wife Nance shot the photography for the new album, including the cover shot - where was that picture taken?
It’s this place that we go every summer, this beautiful lake [called] Lake Santeetlah, which is in western North Carolina and it’s a place we go camping for a week or so, take the Airstream and it’s just a gorgeous, quiet lake.
David Wilcox performs on Saturday night at the Arts Collinwood Cafe at 8pm. Doors are at 7pm and tickets are $18.00 (purchase your tickets here)
Wanna learn more about what David Wilcox is all about? Watch this video!