A Chat at Hay Camp | Corb Lund | e.36

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What got you into Songwriting? Was it a family thing?

No, not at all. My family were cattle and rodeo people for generations. They ranched down in Utah and Nevada and came up to Alberta around the turn of the century. But they were cowboys so no music in our family really, except our Aunt playing church piano. Although, my grandpa, as I said they were ranchers, and they used to sing cowboy ballads like “Strawberry Roan” and “When The Work’s All Done This Fall”. They weren’t singers, but in those days, music wasn’t always a career. It was more of a personal hobby. My impression is that music back then, especially a lot of folk style music, was just kind of a personal entertainment thing, and also a means of transmitting oral history too. Some of the first songs I heard were from them.

When I was about 15 I got into playing rock and roll guitar. All the western stuff was kind of boring to me because I grew up with it, so I thought rock and roll was kind of fascinating. So we started fooling around with garage bands and then we started a heavy rock band called “The Smalls” and I was one of the principle songwriters in that band. It was kind of a Black Sabbath meets Speed Metal kind of thing.

Are there anymore of those songs floating around? Can we hunt them down somewhere?

Oh yeah, It’s out there! We cut 4 records. I don’t know if it’s on Spotify in the US, but it’s available widely in Canada. I was the bass player, did a little of co-lead singing though. It was much more collaborative. When we would write songs with that band we would just jam in the basement and work stuff out. It was more about the guitar riffs. And then, after I had been playing and writing songs for 5-6 years I realized that I could play all those old cowboy songs I grew up with and so I got really heavy into that. Once i was in that I started writing my own western type songs, or whatever you want to call it. The first one I wrote was called “We Used To Ride ‘Em”. It’s on one of our first records and we still play it sometimes.

Then when The Smalls broke up, I had already started and early version of this band on the weekend kind of thing, so I just started doing it full time. I had already put out two records, but I got real serious about it at that point and put out one called “Five Dollar Bill” which launched this phase of my career.

Writing in this situation is much different. In my rock band it was all about jamming as I said.

When you put an album together, do you look for a central theme of songs that fit together, or do you just say “Hey, these are what I’ve written. Let’s put ‘em on an album.”?

The latter. I’ve never really been able to write on commission. Occasionally people will say. “Oh, you should write about this!”, but usually what happens is I get a bunch of random ideas. I have one record called “Horse Soldier” which 60% of is military history songs, but that wasn’t planned. I was just kind of into that at the time and it just kind of happened that way. I’ve always had a hard time planning any of that. If you want to get into the process of it, what happens for me is I just get an idea randomly when I’m driving or walking, anytime really. After a while you get kind of disciplined about recording them or writing down whatever it is. I don’t have very much luck just sitting down and saying, “Ok, I’m gonna write a song”, and then coming up with something. Usually what happens for me, and it feels a lot more organic this way, is that I have all these chunks that come to me that I’ve recorded throughout the week or month. Then, when it comes time to actually sit down and work I just dig through those and build on them. I seldom have every started a song deliberately with a blank canvas. It’s almost always a chunk of something with a couple of catchy lines that have a rhythm to them.

People always say that lyrics are melody. For me, it’s kind of combined. I’ll get a germ of an idea, or a part of a chorus, with a line or two in my brain. Then, I’ll write all those down and then when the work part comes I just sift through all those and decide which ones would be fun to work on and expand from there.

You can tell when a song comes out organically like that vs. when someone pushes a song out. You’ve got song creating machines in places like Nashville where that’s all they do. They hire songwriters and put em in a room all day, vs. “I was walking down the street and a thought popped into my head and now it’s a song.”

I think the latter method tends to reflect the actual feelings of the songwriter more. I’d probably shoot myself, but I could probably apply myself like it’s an English paper and finish something. But that’s a whole different goal. Those guys in that industry are doing it for money. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. It’s just a fact. It’s like McDonald’s vs. a fine Italian Restaurant, or Nike’s vs. hand made boots.

I always end up getting dragged into conversations about Nashville stuff and I’m passed the point of caring. When I was young I would say “those guys suck!” But it’s just a different goal. They got four guys in a room in a focus group and they are trying to sell records and put stuff on the radio. That’s the goal. The goal for me and all my buddies is to express ourselves and make art.

A few years back I was the same way, and every now and then I fall into that trap. More so now, though, I just don’t even pay attention. I’m gonna pay attention to the music I like.

Well, and these days there no reason to have to listen to that stuff.

There’s a ton of great art out there that you’re not gonna find on the radio. Go hunt it down and listen to it.

I kind of feel that eventually it might just atrophy and go away. Maybe, maybe not. That whole infrastructure is built on terrestrial radio and media push. The more that technology fractures the media the less monolithic it’s gonna be. You’re already seeing it.

Well and people are able to recognize bullshit.

Some people are. I may be wrong about this, but I’m not sure how many people who are truly passionate about music like that kind of stuff. There might be a few. Cause I know people who just put on music in the background and they’re not really interested. That’s fine. Maybe they’re into monster trucks or something. People are into different things. There’s a big swath of the population, especially more these days, that doesn’t actually conscientiously listen to music. It’s sort of a balm for the troubles of the day. It’s on in the background and they’re not really focusing on it. I think most of the people who truly focus on it eventually find their way to better music; or more artistic music.

How do you maintain a high level of creativity album after album? One of the big critiques a lot of people have with their favorite artists is after 5-7 albums, it just isn’t the same. Is that a challenge or do you even worry about it?

I usually try to follow my gut. I think most people are lying if they say they don’t care at all of anybody likes it. We all want to make a living of course. I think the answer is that you don’t really know. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen bands where the first three records are awesome and then they start to suck and no one really knows why, and they don’t even know why. Sometimes, I’ve seen this a bunch in the rock world, where they’ll have a couple great early records, and then they get a better producer, more money, and then they start sucking. The true people who really like music know that they suck, but they don’t know because their audience got bigger. It’s kind of scary because you’ll walk around thinking, “Is that happening to me?”. I can tell that it’s not yet, but that’s the thing, you don’t really know.

It’s a tough question because, if there were 1000 people who liked your first record when it was real raw, and then there’s 100,000 that like your new one’s, who’s right?

Well, everybody strives to be self aware, but at some point, it’s hard to really know. Especially if you’re looking at the stats that way.

I think serious artists are really willing to dig and be brutally honest with themselves. I don’t mean to say that I’m my own worst critic, cause that sounds like a self help thing. I don’t mean that, like I’m constantly belittling myself. I’m pretty confident in what I do. What I mean to say is I have a really stringent filter for my stuff. I’ve had managers and producers say, “Oh, that’s great!" when it’s actually not great. It’s cool, and it’ll work, but it’s not good. It’s the same as, well, I’m a hack guitar player. I’m pretty good, but my guy Grant plays circles around me. Even though he’s 10 years younger, I’ll never get there. But people say to me, “You’re a great guitar player.” Actually, I’m not. I’m competent enough, but I’m not a great guitar player. I feel the same thing happening with producers, and sometimes management, even friends. They’ll say, “Oh that’s great” and I know I have written some things that are great and this is not one of them, or it needs more work. I have a really high bar for my shit. I hate to say it, but I don’t think everybody does. I constantly question things and I constantly go back.

Another aspect of this is that I seldom ever write a song in one sitting. Most of my songs take months. I know a lot of peoples process is, “Hey, I sat down this afternoon and wrote a song.” That doesn’t work for me. For me it’s, “Hey, I had a great afternoon. I got a couple lines on this one, I finally got the chorus on that one, and I extended the bridge on this one.” I’ve always got about 10 or 20 or 50 chunks, so when I sit down for the afternoon, I’m looking at 4 or 5 or 10 of them, polishing them a little bit each day. Like “Bible on the Dash”, written with Hayes Carll, that literally took years to write. I wrote the chorus and one verse, and fooled around with it for years. I turned it every which way and just couldn’t get it any further. Then I drank some beers with Hayes one night and we finished it off.

Just goofing around one night and out came the song?

Yeah. That’s the only way I’ve ever been able to co-write with buddies. I’m much for apt to do it at 10pm instead of 10am. It takes me along time. That’s what I’m getting at.

But it’s gotta be fun when it’s all done. When you and Hayes are sitting there, there’s a point where you both realize it’s done and time to go record it and put it out there.

Yeah, for sure. I get satisfaction even from getting a few good lines on a song, even if it’s no where near being done. So yeah, my process is to have a whole bunch going on and polish them a little each day.

Do you use a notebook or phone or is it more of both?

Both. For the audio I use my phone. Actually these days, I mostly write stuff down, then quickly transfer it to digital when I can just so I don’t lose it. Something still feels good about pencil. The lead feeling.

What was it like when people first started to notice your songs?

It’s cool. A lot of my stuff is really regional, family history, and western stuff regarding my background and my region of the world. It was cool on one level when people around home started liking it, but it was extra cool when people in New York City, or England, like it. That means that you’re transcending the specifics and getting into the general. I didn’t really know for sure if writing specific stuff about Cowboy culture and my life would appeal to people outside that circle. If you do it right, though, it turns out it does.

Do you think singing songs about Cowboy culture is growing recently or do you think that’s always been there?

I think that it’s dying. I can only think of about 6 artists that do it. The only guys I know doing it are artists like me, Ned Ledouix, Cody Johnson, Aaron Watson.

I’m thinking about artists like Colter Wall, I’d put Hayes in that group as well.

I think you and I are talking about two different things. You may be referring to underground country as a whole. But with that, I think it comes in waves. In the 70’s, Willie and Waylon did it. I think it’s like Nirvana. The commercial stuff just gets so shitty and it feeds on itself and gets to a point where it is so lame that something fresh comes along. Whether it’s Willie and Waylon in the 70’s, or Sturgill Simpson a couple years ago, or Nirvana, I think it’s a cycle. The underground is always there. Every now and then it pokes through. Then, everybody tries to copy that and it gets sucky again.

How’s the tour been? You said this is your 8th week in?

It’s been outstanding. This is our best American tour yet by far. It’s encouraging especially because we’ve been at this a long time. I wanted to mention, remember we were talking about before how people start to suck after a few records? One thing I am proudest of, one of my favorite records is “Cabin Fever”which is one of my most recent; our 7th I think. I feel like we’ve really come into our own sound and really got a handle on things on that one. Which is cool on our 7th record. Often, like you were saying, it happens on your 2nd and then it’s downhill from that.

Another thing that goes back to something we were talking about 10 minutes ago about developing the songs and when you feel, “OK, not it’s done.” A huge thing is production and arrangement too. I can get it to the point where I feel like it’s done and I can sit here and play it for you on the guitar, but then bringing it to the band and the producers is a whole other ball game too. That’s still a mystery to me. Sometimes it works better than expected, sometimes it’s worse. I’ll have an idea in my head of what the rhythm of the drums should be, this is what the guitar should probably do, maybe it needs a banjo, whatever. Sometimes I’m right on the money. Other times it goes totally sideways and turns out cool a whole other way. You can take an acoustic song, and depending on the production and arrangement and instrumentation, it can sound like 12 different songs. You can make it a Celtic song or make it a rock song.

Like ‘I Wanna be in the Calvary’ is a fun song to play on St. Patricks Day. It kind of fits the feel.

You know, what’s funny about that one, and “Family Reunion”, which is a bit like that one with an Appalachian feel to it, is that I wrote those on Mandolin. That’s real strong evidence for it being a healthy thing to pick of different instruments.

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What’s the biggest challenge with writing a song, then handing it over to your band or producer and letting them tweak it, play with it, and really giving them the reigns?

It’s a collaboration. My last record, it was my 8th I guess. I’ve been a do it yourself guy my whole life. I’ve fixed my own van, build my own shed, screen my own shirts, you know, all that stuff. I’ve been kind of a control freak my whole life. I’d reached a point in my last record where I said, ‘You know what, I’m gonna let these other professionals help me.’, and, I didn’t like it in the end. I wasn’t happy with the results. It’s no one’s fault. It’s just that everyone has different tastes. There were some things on the record that I didn’t like at first and I thought, ‘You know what? I’m just gonna roll with this and be a little more open minded.’ Turns out, I still don’t like em. So I think from now on I’m gonna trust my own gut. That’s not a reflection on my producer or the guys, I love them. They’re awesome. But I think at the end of the day, it’s got my name on it. They’re my songs and I gotta see it through to the end.

That’s one of the things I’ve noticed about songwriting myself. You’re putting a little bit of yourself out there for someone. To see it tweaked a bit is a little tough.

Well, sometimes my guys will get a hold of it and it’s great. Everyone just has different tastes is all.

So you were just in Laramie, WY. Before that in Colorado, and after this, (Rapid City, SD) you’re heading to Montana.

Yup. Then home. It started in January at Steamboat Springs at that festival. Then flew to meet the guys in Montana. Then we went out to the coast in California, made our way to Texas and now we’re on our way back north.

I did want to ask you how much dirt did you taste filming Gravedigger? That looked like a fun time.

Oh, some. Some dirt. I thought the dirt on the face was an effective shot so I thought it was worth it.

Zombies and Cowboys man. It’s a good one.

Those kind of tunes, I think if I hadn’t gone through the decade of weird, indie, underground, rock music, well A) I might not have gotten into music at all, but if i had, and went straight into writing country western music , it’d be a lot more square. I think my western background, combined with the ethos of indie rock, those two things together make my writing what it is now. A lot of the settings in my stuff are cowboy stuff, or family history, or the west, or frontier, but a lot of it is just kind of out there too. I feel really in tune and comfortable in cowboy culture and western stuff. I feel really rooted to it because both sids of my family go way back in that culture. But I also don’t worship it. I approach the whole thing with abandon. Sometimes the old school cowboy singers, it’s like chasing the cattle down the dusty trail and it’s like, ‘Well, that’s cool. It was cool in 1940.’ My authenticity is saying what it’s like to be from that background, but living in the 21st century and being into all kinds of weird shit. If you’re trying to do your thing and be yourself, that’s kind of what I’m doing. It’s half cowboy and half whatever the hell else my brain has.

It’s letting everything that you have experienced influence what comes out.

Yeah. I don’t have any lines. I just mix it all together in a big pot. Stylistically too. We were talking about instrumentation and production, I hear a lot of records, especially songwriter records, where every song kind of sounds the same; rhythmically and similar tempo. It’s really important to me to have different styles on a record. We draw from western swing, ragtime, and Waylon country rock , and talking blues folk music, and rockabilly. I like to mix all those things together to make an interesting record. I think dynamics is one of the most important things, and you can get dynamics on all fronts. Tempo, style, lyrical mood, all those things. I think it’s really important on a record, and a live show for that matter, to have an emotional journey. Otherwise it gets boring after the 4th song.

What’s been the most fun thing on this tour so far? Any highlighted memories?

It’s a pretty cheesy answer, but we’ve toured down here so much. It’s been ok, and it’s always been a real grind. But the thing has really blossomed this tour. It’s amazing to go to a city that you’ve played 5 times before to 50 people and all of a sudden there’s 300. Or for that matter go to a city you’ve never played before and have 300-400 people. It’s good. Our career arch is such a slow burn that we really appreciate every little bit of it. It’s fun. It’s cool when you can go to a place far away and have people sing your lyrics back to you also.

I appreciate you taking the time.

That was fun. Cheers.

Cheers.