Interview: Steve Earle on the songwriter’s task (audio and transcript)

Steve Earle

Master songwriter Steve Earle has just released his 16th studio album Terraplane, which is partly an exploration of the blues music styles he grew up surrounded by in Texas. Les Thomas asked Steve Earle about the new record, his numerous ongoing projects and his reaction to Bob Dylan’s recent MusiCares speech.

I’ve really been enjoying the Terraplane album. The last time we had a chance to speak was in 2012 before your Bluesfest visit here. You’ve obviously done a huge amount of work in between. This being your blues album, which I guess has always been a huge part of the musician you are.

It’s a component of what I’ve done from the beginning, no doubt about it.

Can you give us an idea of the kind of reception Terraplane has been getting so far?

Well, it’s really early. So far people seem to like it. I don’t read reviews. I don’t think there are any terrible ones because usually people around me start getting bummed out, and they seem to be pretty happy with the record so far. (Laughs) I’ve only played the songs for audiences by myself on this promotional tour on the radio and record stores and so far people seem to be liking it quite a bit. Next week’s the fun part because we’re going to rehearse on Sunday for the first time since we finished the record. And we’re going to do David Letterman for the last time because he’s retiring. We’re going to set up in Electric Ladyland Studios and do four live broadcasts for four different outlets over a couple of days. Which will be cool because that means I’ll be able to walk to work. The tour starts in the middle of April here in North America. Hopefully we’ll be round by the following April. The last leg will be in Australia and New Zealand.

In a recent interview I heard you describe yourself as a musicologist. In this album, were there certain parts  of the blues that you really wanted to bring to light?

Because I’m a songwriter, my approach to anything is as a songwriter, it was focussing on where the blues began for me. Because of my age, I backtracked to John Lee Hooker from Canned Heat. So Canned Heat’s a part of how I want this record to sound. The blues are pretty psychedelic for me because of when I was introduced to them; it’s just a matter of chronology. But I’m also from Texas and I saw Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins in the same room at the same time on more than one occasion. I knew Townes who knew Lightin’ really well and really understood that quite a bit. I knew Stevie Ray Vaughan and I know Jimmy Vaughan and I saw Johnny Winter a lot coming up. ZZ Top’s a big part of the blues for me. The first two records were one of the reasons I went back and started looking for Howlin’ Wolf records and Muddy Waters records. The Chess records and the Wolf records weren’t long solos and stuff, they were essentially pop records for a specific audience. We tried to get back to that idea. Those records were all 2 minutes and 30 seconds because they were made for juke boxes and you’re cheating yourself out of nickels if you put a bunch of long songs on a juke box.

It’s kind of ideal for the double-sided record as well.

My home base format is becoming vinyl again. If I was a pop act selling millions and millions of records it would probably be different, but our home base format is becoming digital download attached to a 12” vinyl LP. I’m back to sequencing records as side one and side two again.

One of the themes that comes through really strongly on the record is the deal with the devil, the Faustian pact. That’s the sort of stuff of legend and myth and imagination. Is there a way that has played out in your own life?

I got into the legend of the crossroads in one song. It seemed like the place to do it because I was interested in writing a spoken word song in iambic pentameter over a boogie. Working in a classical form it felt like a classical story was the way to go, and in the context of the blues that is the classical story. But the reason Robert Johnson is Robert Johnson is not because he went to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil and was a better guitar player than everybody else. There were guitar players that were as good as he was. But there weren’t writers that were as good as he was. Robert Johnson wrote all of the blues as we know it. The modern version of the blues is all based on one Robert Johnson song or another. People said he sold his soul to the devil because they were jealous. It never occurred to them that it was the songs that made him special. I’m sure people said similar things about Bob Dylan when he showed up in the Village, that something fishy was going on there.

It also raises questions about how in order to do one thing it does involve a certain amount of sacrifice.

The parallel between what you have to do and what you have to risk in order to make art. People always try to make it into how you have to abuse yourself. You have to suffer the loss. That’s not what you have to do. It’s really simple. Most of my records are artistic successes to me. I’m happy with all of them. I don’t have any that I can’t stand to listen to, which I’m very grateful for. It’s not a given in this business. I know really talented people who made records that they hate. What you’ve gotta be willing to do is to give up something of yourself. People aren’t so much interested in what you think. There not interested in what you feel. They’re interested in the fact that someone’s feeling something similar to what they feel and that they’re not alone. This job’s empathy more than it is anything else. Some people, if they fail artistically, it’s because they’re not willing to give it up. They’re not willing to give up some part of themselves. You’ve got to be a little unashamed.

It seems with the Camp Copperhead songwriting camp you’re starting to take on some of that teaching and mentoring role yourself. You had great mentors in terms of songwriting from Guy Clarke and Townes and so on. What do you get out of teaching?

I learn a lot when I teach. I wrote “You’re the Best Lover”, just started writing it and showing to the class and finished it by the end of the week last year. I’ve decided the way to keep doing this is I’m going to do the camp this year as a continuation of last year rather than starting at the beginning. New people that turn up- I’m gonna have people that were here before catch them up. I think that’s the way to do it. We’ve been taping it, it’s all going to be available eventually. It going to be this narrative that happens every year. I hope we’re able to sustain it. I really enjoy doing it.

I imagine that when you approach the subject of songwriting that the focus on lyrics is pretty intense.

It is, because that’s the kind of songwriting that I do. We talk about things outside of lyrics – there’s a poetry workshop that goes on during the week that’s taught by two graduate students who are poets. There are guitar lessons available for people. Singer-songwriters don’t necessarily start doing this because they’re musicians at their very core. It’s a literary gift as much as anything else. I try to provide an environment that strengthens all those things. They ended up writing haiku last year. They’re going to write haiku again this year.

You seem to be building up quite a list of projects at the moment. Including following up with a duet album with Shawn Colvin and a country record and you’ve also mentioned a desire to write a Broadway musical. I wondered if there are any musicals that have made you want to leap in?

One of my favourites is Carousel. In those days Broadway musicals could be pretty dark. What I want to do is not dark. Once was pretty inspiring in that I loved the way it was presented with the performers playing their own instruments. That’s going to happen in this musical of mine because the characters are buskers and chess players and acrobats in Washington Square Park. It’s a love story and a ghost story and a history of New York that all plays out in Washington Square Park largely after midnight when the park is closed. It’s called Washington Square Serenade and the core of it is the songs that are on that record.

That’s album that you wrote at the beginning of the long relationship with Alison Moorer [Washington Square Serenade]. You’ve always made love a pretty central theme to your artwork. With the current record Terraplane, the pain I hear in “Better Off Alone” is pretty evident. How do you find performing that stuff on a daily basis? Is it cathartic, or a challenge?

It’s cathartic to perform “Better off Alone” or “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now” which are two opposite ways of dealing with the same thing. But I still perform “Sparkle and Shine” and “Every Part of Me” because people want to hear them, and it’s not so comfortable sometimes. But they’re really good songs and I’m really proud of them and chicks dig ’em so I play ’em. My experience is that all I get to keep is the songs.

You’ve been round the block so many more times than most, in all reality

It’s been a long time. Don’t put this in that basket. It’s not that easy. This is the first time that I was ever married sober. And it’s been a long time. And the first several years I was sober I didn’t get married. The first ten years I was sober I didn’t get married. I lived with a couple of people and I didn’t get married, and I didn’t get married on purpose. It was the hardest I’ve ever worked on a relationship. The longest I’ve ever lasted. And it failed. But don’t talk about it in the same breath as everybody I married when I was on dope in the ‘80s.

There are a lot of your fans who would similarly be great supporters of Alison’s work. Most people of goodwill would wish the best for both of you. 

The deal is, I’m not at that stage in going through this. I’m going through a divorce. I’m still going through it. My main concern is I’ve got a little boy who’s not quite five years old and he has autism, and I’m just trying to make sure he gets what he needs and stays where he can get what he needs. That’s what my concern is.

Fair enough, absolutely. I don’t know if you had an opportunity to hear what Bob Dylan had to say at his recent MusicCare talk.

I read it. It was one of those things: Bob shows that he’s human in moments like that. It was really cool the people that he thanked. He thanked a lot of people that were important, and people were definitely there for him. He left out very few that I would have included if I were him. You know, Merle Haggard pleaded within 24 hours, he said “Bob Dylan, I’ve admired you work since 1964”. I think Bob got the idea that Merle Haggard didn’t like his songs, and I think Bob was wrong about that. When I was half way through it I thought, “Goddamn he can write!”. It was incredibly well written. (Laughs)

There were so many gems in there. I was amazed at the negative response when he had amazing words from Sam Cooke on being complimented on the quality of his voice, Cooke said the beauty of the voice isn’t really the most important thing, it’s the honesty. The Merle Haggard stuff totally took over. I wondered if that was a matter of the deep social divisions of the time. You had “Okie from Muskogee”, “The Fightin’ Side of Me”.

I know, I know. I struggled with all that stuff. It was 1967 when those records came out. But I was well enough along as a songwriter that I knew how good “Silver Wings” and “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” and “Mama Tried” were. They were really great songs. He is one of the greatest songwriters that country music ever produced. And Nashville’s not a singer-songwriter town. It was always hard on Johnny Cash, because he was a singer-songwriter at the beginning and it kind of beat it out of him. He didn’t really have that much confidence in his writing. Haggard managed to avoid that by being in California. I don’t think Merle was ever that guy. Just like I’m not the guy singing “Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough)”. I don’t think Merle was ever that guy that was singing to you. I think you’re hearing the character talk there.

When might we expect an Australian visit next?

Unless I’ve pissed Peter Noble off somehow, my guess is that it will be next April (2016) around Easter around Byron like we always do.

About Les Thomas 106 Articles
Narrm/Melbourne singer-songwriter and Unpaved editor

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