Steve Earle’s favorite singer knows a
thing or two about words and melody. Oh, and about goats, too…
BY GRANT ALDEN
We were taking
turns scamming our way into the Exit/In to see the Kings of Leon the last night
I remember spilling Guinness at the front table of the Sherlock Holmes Pub,
back in Nashville. A loose knot of friends settled there every Tuesday night,
threaded around the singer and songwriter Allison Moorer and her then-husband
and creative partner, Butch Primm. Sometimes the critic and songwriter Peter
Cooper showed up, maybe Lonesome Bob, before he went back to Pennsylvania, and
R.S. Field, who wrote “Tough Enough” for the Fabulous Thunderbirds, kept
slipping out to check on his sons who were up the street, and probably weren’t
old enough to be in a bar, but, y’know…Me, I came back after two songs and
opined that I’d seen Grand Funk Railroad at the Ryman and the Kings of Leon
were no Grand Funk.
I don’t know
that it was fun, but it makes for a tolerable story.
By the time
Moorer married Steve Earle and left Nashville for New York, she’d been
nominated for an Academy Award and a Grammy, she’d demonstrated to pretty near
everybody’s satisfaction – except the buying public – that she could flat out
sing, and that she was one hell of a writer.
I should add
here that we aren’t friends, not exactly, but maybe almost. We have friends in
common, and I have written about her before, once for the cover of a magazine
which no longer exists.
had her throw at country stardom recording for MCA, finally cut some tracks
with her sister, Shelby Lynne, for the live album Show. She made her break-up album with Earle producing, cut a set
of standards with Buddy Miller at the helm. Began making and designing clothes.
Her new album,
the Ryko-released Crows, is a suite
of songs qualitatively different from their predecessors. Maybe it’s a pop
record, if Randy Newman and Laura Nyro could be considered pop figures, but
those aren’t quite the right cops, either. Regardless, it’s produced once again
by R.S. Field and made for an excuse to talk with the lady.
BLURT: What are you working on right now?
I’m not working on anything. I’m taking a break.
Because I just
made a record!
Doesn’t that make you want to design
clothes or knit or something?
Well, that’s not true. I’m always piddling in something, but I tend to get too
many projects piled up on myself, if I’m not careful. My thing is now to just
do one thing at a time. At the moment I’m cross-stitching pincushions for
Christmas gifts. I know that’s so rock ‘n’ roll, but that’s exactly what I’m
doing at the moment.
I know where my
bread is buttered, so I don’t ever delve into that side of things so much that
I lose my focus on music. But right now, I’ve got this record put to bed, I’m
not going to think about music, or, at least, I’m not going to think about,
What’s the next thing I’m going to write, what’s the next record I’m going to
do right now? I’m doing a little nesting, and waiting for Steve to get home
from this never-ending European run he’s on.
The press story is that you wrote Crows on the piano, more or less.
Um, it’s about
half and half. Piano’s my first instrument, really, and I went away from it for
a long time because I didn’t have one. They’re simply not portable (laughs), it’s not easy to move around a
lot when you’re in your 20s and drag a piano around.
I was away from
it a long time, I just simply didn’t have one around. And now that I do, I just
love to play, love love love to play.
It feels like home to me. It really reminds me of what I used to feel like when
I was a kid, sitting at the piano making up songs. Which is probably why the
piano songs sound the way that they do. “Easy in the Summertime” and “Crows”
especially have this very child-like quality to them, I think.
But I did just
as much work on guitar, and really ratcheted that up, as well. I’m
finger-picking a lot more than I ever have, and actually making up parts that I
would have left to someone else before now. So my strength as a musician has
definitely increased. I’m proud of that.
Your voice has changed some, too.
It’s just become
more open. I think that’s because I’ve allowed it to be. And I quit letting
anyone tell me what I should sound like. I try to go to where the emotion is,
whatever place that is in my voice.
I have the sense that writing on the
piano changes the way you frame melody.
just so open. I’m not fighting with anything when I sit down at the piano,
because it’s all right there. I don’t have to make my hands do anything weird,
or find any chords to inspire me, or learn an open tuning. Guitar is, for me,
even though I’m OK… it’s so mysterious to me. There are just so many things it
can do, I just don’t think anyone ever really masters it. Who wants to? I don’t
think mastering anything is the point here. And I love to play guitar, and it’s
definitely one of my best friends. But piano’s just different. It just has an
openness that I don’t get on guitar.
This isn’t an angry album [and some of
them have been, despite Moorer’s restraint], but it’s often melancholy.
As much as “Crows” talks about rock ‘n’
roll hours, our first interview was scheduled for 9 a.m.
I sort of put
away all that stuff a while ago, and I’m so much better for it. My creativity
is…(sigh)… there’s just a lot more of
it, and I don’t have to fight as hard to get things out. That comes with
maturity, too, and learning more about what you’re doing, but I quite like not
being a barfly.
When you hang
out in bars all the time, inevitably people are going to get drunk and start
bitching about what they don’t like. I’m just over that. I have no desire to
live in that world. I have no desire to hang out with people who get their
juice from that. I’d rather stay home and read a book, or watch a great film or
learn something, rather than be stuck in a dark place that you don’t get
anything out of other than more darkness. You know?
You’re now in a position where you can
kind of do anything you want, creatively.
And that’s what
I’m doing. I think that this record, more than any other…obviously my first
four records were made with Butch. And I think we did some great work together,
I really do, and I look back on those records, as records, fondly. I don’t look
back on the experience of making them fondly. Because it wasn’t fun, it was
always tense and I found myself for so many years trying to balance, OK, how do
I get the art made that I want to make and go home with this person who wants
to do something different? So I ended up making a lot of concessions that I
probably wouldn’t have made otherwise.
about those records aren’t necessarily me, you know? Some things about those
records are him. I certainly don’t hold him responsible for that, although I
wish he had more courage to make his own art. I hold myself responsible for
making that decision, but I was trying to keep a marriage together. I do wish
that it had been a little bit… it had been a lot different. When R.S. and I
went in the studio to make Crows, we
were like, wow! (laughs deeply) This
is fun. Because our last experience was not.
Well, that was a difficult record.
The Duel, yeah. I love that record, and I
personally think it’s a great sounding record, and it’s quite a statement. But
there are some things about that record that are not me, that are not true to
me. And I regret that. But I spent a lot of time being referee on that record,
and I was the fucking artist (laughs).
It was ridiculous, it was a truly ridiculous situation.
So after that
was over and we split, I made Getting
Somewhere, and that was just like my liberation record. I love that record,
I think it’s a fun rock ‘n’ roll record. And then I went, God I’m tired. Made Mockingbird, the covers record, and
throughout that process I started writing songs and was collecting my thoughts
and living in a way that I hadn’t, ever. I’d never really given myself
permission to just live, to just be. I had to find some other identity besides
Allison Moorer the singer. I had to find out who I was, because I knew there
was more than that, that just happens to be what I do and what I love, but it
can’t be all there is. It can’t be all there is to me, that’s a boring person.
So, you know, we were hanging out in New York, I took some design classes and
just started exploring other parts of myself that I think totally feed into my
music and I just sort of decided to open up. I feel, for the first time,
actually, confident in what I’m doing.
Why did you pick R.S. to produce this
Because he’s my
friend, and because I trust him, and because I knew that because I was really
exploring some new territory on this record, I needed someone that I knew how
to communicate with already. I didn’t want to go in with a brand new producer
and have to learn how to communicate with ‘em. Because I just didn’t need that
extra work. And I knew he would make it sound great, I knew he would get it. I
Are you watching politics much?
God, yes, and I
told Steve on the phone a couple days ago that I needed to turn the television
off, because I’m totally hooked on MSNBC. It’s the first thing I watch when I
wake up in the morning, it’s the last thing I watch when I go to bed at night.
And I have to be
honest, I’m really, really disappointed with the way things are going, and I’m
kind of put out with the whole process. The whole political process. I don’t
know what to do about it, because I don’t see us moving to France any time
soon. I’d consider it, but… (laughs),
you know, I’m just frustrated. I’m ready for things to get better, and I’m
frustrated with the people that… you know, I’m like everybody, I want people to
think like I do. So I need to turn it off.
We’re just withdrawing further and
further. We’re going to build a house out by the orchard, raise goats, and to
hell with everything.
I think that’s a
great idea. That sounds good.
Not that I know anything about building a
house, or raising goats…
Well, I’ll tell
you about goats. I had two batches in my life, when I was a kid. They’re
fantastic, they’re wonderful, they shit everywhere, but they keep the grass
cut. And they’re really, really sweet. And you can get cheese and milk, and if
you get angora ones…