By Adam Dawson
For a lot of Americana music fans, Rod Picott’s name might be most familiar for appearing in album credits as the co-writer on many great songs by such artists as Slaid Cleaves and Fred Eaglesmith. But dig just a little deeper, and you’ll uncover seven stunning albums of Picott’s own. Spend some quality time with any one of those records, and you’ll inevitably want to keep exploring the rest of his catalog — and ultimately come away a full-blown convert to Rod Picott’s “Circus of Misery and Heartbreak,” as the Maine-born, Nashville-based artist sardonically bills his roadshow. Throughout his career, Picott has established himself as a master of inhabiting the thoughts and emotions of the characters whose stories he so elegantly tells in song. Whether crawling inside them for a first-person perspective or telling their tales from an outsider’s point of view, Picott’s ability to make the lives of the people we drink with at the local watering hole, work next to on the factory lines, or share a queen-size bed with at night seem somehow unique and amazing while simultaneously remaining as comforting and familiar as our own lives.
Opening up in a way that he has never before on this year’s Fortune, Picott spins that ever-observant eye and pen onto himself. Fortune is by far the most personal and revealing album he has ever released. The songs themselves are honest and visceral, and his decision to cut his own soul out and put it on a recording make them even more relatable: we’ve all had our hearts broken, lost a friend, and felt like the whole damn world is out to get us. Sonically, Picott, producer Neilson Hubbard (Mr. Lemons Studios, East Nashville) and supporting cast Will Kimbrough and Lex Price have created a sparse and looming world that allows the lyrics to deliver a resounding impact. And Picott, never really known for his vocal tone, shines in this aspect: his voice on certain tracks becomes almost lullabyesque, while on others it takes on a grit that brings to mind a mid-70’s Tom Waits or a slightly tamer Howling Wolf.
We caught up with Rod via phone from his Nashville home on a two-day hiatus from his seemingly never ending tour. After driving nearly 18 hours the day before, he took the time to discuss Fortune, Christmas music, his top album of 2015 and his plans for the future.
Since its summer release, Fortune has received a lot of really good press, including from outlets like Rolling Stone. You’ve always garnered good reviews, but did the response to this album surprise you?
You know it’s hard to gauge that stuff. The one thing I think is interesting on the reviews of Fortune is that it is such a dark record. I was a little bit nervous about it, I was expecting the writers and reviewers to not get it maybe as much as the other records. But, they’ve liked it as much or more than the others. I keep thinking to myself, “Well, wait till you hear the next one then.”
You call it a dark record. But the subject matter of these songs also seems much more personal in nature than anything you’ve ever done before. What spurred that decision?
As I’m writing I’m collecting songs that I think belong to a family. I think of albums as albums, like a photo album: Here’s this time period or this group of things that go together. I found myself in a place where I felt like stripping away maybe even my own bullshit. I just wanted to make a record that was really raw in every way, so I pushed myself to write and be really raw in the subject matter. So I found that I was writing a lot about myself and personal and raw. Those were the marching orders when we went to make the recording. I told Neilson, I don’t care if I have to sit naked on a bucket in the rain to get the performances, we are going to do whatever it takes to get the right performance of every song. The main word was raw, and it was really pleasing, almost cathartic for me.
From a songwriting standpoint is it more difficult to crawl into that space as opposed to telling someone else’s story?
It sure felt more naked, I felt more vulnerable. The writing is done privately and I was comfortable with that even though I was more vulnerable. The part that was tricky was going in to make the record. Because then the stuff that feels good for you to perform privately, you are doing in front of people, and that is a completely different thing. But we did it in an environment that not only made it possible, but one that invited more vulnerability.
Have the songs on off Fortune gotten any noticeably different reactions from your fans, compared to your previous work?
I think that for a certain part of the audience they are even more meaningful. It’s obvious when a performer is letting their guard down and stripping themselves bare. I think if I’m doing my job and staying inside of the performance then it’s pretty powerful. It’s a fine line to sing these songs that are so personal and not make it about therapy for me, because it’s not my therapy. I’m there for the audience, it’s not supposed to be about my feelings. I think so far I’ve done a pretty good job of keeping that in mind.
You mentioned producer, Neilson Hubbard. This was your first time working with him. On your last release you worked with RS Field and prior to that you self produced all of your records. What pushed you towards working with Neilson and how was it a different experience?
RS is a very old school producer and has been making records for a long time. He knows how to make a record and it’s about putting the sounds on the tape. That is a very different thing than what Neilson does. Neilson is very vulnerable and open, he’s a very calm guy, he’s not cynical. He sort of has the psychology of a producer that wants to tease out the record you want to make. While RS Field was a great producer for making the last one, he wasn’t the one for this one. This isn’t a record about figuring out guitar sounds and piling on instruments to make it sound great. This is a record that requires a producer to make a space to capture a very vulnerable performance. When I talked to Neilson I just felt like he was the guy to make that happen and he was. Very patient and very quiet; he likes records that are all about emotion, not making one that stacks tracks and makes a great piece of audio.
You are still touring constantly, mostly driving around the country alone in your car. What are you listening to these days?
I can be very specific here, I have been listening to the live Tom Waits Glitter and Doom record from like 2009. Still listening to John Moreland’s In The Throes, which is brilliant. Jason Isbell’s Southeastern and the Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas. James McMurtry’s Complicated Game and Muddy Waters’ Greatest Hits.
Everyone needs some Muddy Waters in their lives.
It’s glorious stuff. You know when you watch that Keith Richards documentary on Netflix and his eyes get glazed over when he talks about Muddy, that’s what I feel like, too. I know exactly what he’s thinking. You just think to yourself that’s the full-grown man I want to sound like.
What was your favorite record from this year?
McMurtry’s by far. I can’t even think of a few other records that came out this year. He writes with such beautiful detail. That song “Long Island Sound” on this record, the richness of detail is almost unique to him, just so amazing. You think he could take a side step and be an author easily. Whereas other people, Cohen for example, you know if he took a side step he’d be a poet. With McMurtry the writing is so rich and detailed it wouldn’t be poetry, it would be prose. He would be a novelist if he took side step. And that is so rare with songwriters, and that’s what I love so much about him.
You are home for a couple days and then you go out for your annual DecemberSongs tour (Dec. 4-13) with Amy Speace and Doug and Telisha Williams. How did that start and what does that tour consist of?
It’s a yearly tradition of those guys dragging me into it. I’m like the reluctant uncle being dragged to the party. It’s really Amy’s thing, she did it a few years before she invited us. It’s kind of a free for all. It started as a way to work in December. All of us are touring musicians and you get to the end of the year and it’s hard to find gigs. So, Amy put together this idea of a multi-act tour. It’s a real mixed bag, like a Levon Helm Ramble with a holiday base. We do a few of our own songs and play on each other’s and do the holiday songs that we like. It’s funny, Doug, Telisha, and Amy are all pretty funny people.
Speaking of holiday songs, there are some people that wait all year to listen to Christmas songs for a month straight, or longer, while others absolutely despise those same songs. Where does Rod Picott fall on that spectrum?
[Laughs] Well, I don’t like many of the recordings, but I love some of the arrangements of some of the classic Christmas songs. Musically, I think of it as an opportunity to play songs from another era. You look at the chords of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and you hit that C-Minor diminished chord and it’s not something that I could ever fit into one of my songs. So while lyrically it’s not exactly my thing, it really is fun to step into songs of a different time and that’s the joy in it for me.
Besides more touring, what’s next for you?
I’m thinking about the next record and, looking at my wall, I have about 13 songs that are about ready to go. And this is going to sound kind of ridiculous, but I’ve been working on a book of short stories and thinking of a way to get that to some people. I’ve been working on a book of poetry as well for a year. I’m starting to look at some other avenues of writing, so we’ll see what happens. I have a meeting coming up about the short stories. It’s kind of exciting to try my hand at a different thing. I’m always engaged in the work and I feel so fortunate to be able to do it. I didn’t know that I’d be able to make a living at this, so I feel very, very lucky. I do tour so much and I do get beat up by it, but in a different way than I use to. I’ve been out there banging for a long time, but I still feel grateful. Give me a day or two at home and I’m grateful again and ready to go again. I have a huge six-week tour of Europe in January and I’m looking forward to taking Fortune over there.
With only a year between Hang Your Hopes on a Crooked Nail and Fortune and the new songs already finished, could we be looking at the next record as soon as 2016?
It’s possible. If I feel ready this winter after Europe, I might make the next one. It probably won’t come out next year, but I might make it next year. I’m working a little faster these days. Maybe I’m getting nervous about getting older. I need to get the songs out before the arthritis kicks in.