By Richard Skanse
As modest as their charming home may be by the gaudy standards of say, Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous or even MTV’s Cribs, let the record state that singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves and his wife and manager Karen appear to be doing pretty OK for themselves at the top of their little hill in Wimberley, Texas. At the very least, it’s a giant step up from the tiny downtown Austin house they sold to move out here six years ago — an I-35 shadowed bungalow that wasn’t much bigger than the detached guest house/DIY record label office/songwriting cabin retreat that they have now. Meanwhile, the main residence right next door features a spacious but still cozy-feeling living room with tall windows offering a view of what looks like the entire Texas Hill Country, and a short walk through the cute little kitchen leads to a sun room that happens to have an in-door pool. Mind, it’s just a lap pool, built by the previous owner (“a retired NASA guy from Houston,” says Slaid), and nothing especially fancy, like an adjoining hot tub or decorative waterfall — but it’s still a swimming pool inside the house.
“I’ve never been much into swimming,” admits Cleaves, who like his wife was born and raised quite a ways up north in Maine. “But we use it to cool off in, so … it’s kind of practical.”
It’s Wednesday afternoon, two days before the release of Cleaves’ 13th album, Ghost on the Car Radio. Karen, the obvious inspiration of the new album’s “So Good to Me” who’s been his constant companion now for just shy of 30 years (they met in Portland, Maine back in June of ’89, the same month he started pulling in a living wage on New England bar gigs alone), has commandeered the living room to package pre-orders, so Slaid leads the way back outside and across the car port to the guest house. The whole place, he says, was probably 40 years old when they bought it, and seeing as how its last big renovation was back in the early ’90s, it’s “kind of due” for another. Still, it’s clear he means it when he says they love it so much here, it’s getting harder and harder to leave it to go on tour — or even for their annual summer trips back up to the homeland, where they keep a very rustic “camp cabin” on 60 acres in the wilds of Maine.
“This was definitely a big upgrade from our East Austin place, which is why we could afford this place,” he says happily. He chuckles as he recalls fellow songwriter (and longtime Wimberley denizen) Ray Wylie Hubbard’s first impression of the spread. “He came over to our house warming and said, ‘Slaid, folk music’s been very, very good to you.’ I said, ‘No, East Austin gentrification was very good to me.”
But Hubbard wasn’t that far off the mark. Folk music has proven to be pretty good to Cleaves, and Texas seems to have treated him right kindly, too. Oh, there were lean years, to be sure, and a lengthy period of adjustment from being a big fish on the Portland bar scene to just another acoustic song poet struggling to make a splash in the Live Music Capital of the World. In 1992, a year after he and his wife moved to Austin, Cleaves was named one of the winners of the Kerrville Folk Festival’s prestigious New Folk Songwriting Competition — but he’d still spend the better part of a decade dutifully playing open mic nights from Sixth Street to Cheatham Street Warehouse (in nearby San Marcos), running sound at shows for other artists and even supplementing his own meager take-home pay by playing human guinea pig at a local pharmaceutical testing facility. But word-of-mouth buzz and a handful of self-released cassettes (and the lingering cachet of that New Folk honor, surely) eventually landed him a national record deal with the storied roots music label Rounder Records, and by the time he released his second album for the label — 2000’s Gurf Morlix-produced Broke Down — Cleaves was finally a veritable over-night (or roughly 3,285 of them) Texas-certified folk music sensation.
Eighteen years later, Broke Down is still his best-selling and most renowned album of his career, but on the merits of his songwriting alone, he’s arguably matched or surpassed that personal best many times over. 2004’s Wishbones yielded nearly just as many longtime concert favorites known and loved by discerning fans across the country and Europe, while his last two studio albums — 2011’s Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away and 2013’s Still Fighting the War — netted some of the most glowing reviews of his career. And now the splendid new Ghost on the Car Radio, produced by Austin guitarist “Scrappy” Jud Newcomb, is certain to follow suit. Released on June 23, two weeks after Cleaves’ 53rd birthday, it already bears the distinction of being the veteran recording artist’s first-ever album issued on vinyl — not to mention the first to be released on his own new label, Candy House Records.
“Do you know where that comes from?” he asks with a grin, sitting across from me at the little writing table in the front room of the guest house — aka the cozy and fully stocked isolation chamber where Karen periodically sends him “with a suitcase and a box of food, saying ‘Go write some songs!’” I shake my head.
“Our favorite movie, that we watch on a monthly basis, is Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” he says. I admit I only vaguely remember the details of the 2007 Man in Black spoof, starring John C. Reilly and Jenna Fischer. “Well, whenever she sends me out here to write songs, Karen says, ‘Good luck, honey — you’re going to fail!’ [Laughs] Which is one of the lines in that movie: ‘Ain’t nobody ever made no money doing music, Dewey!’ We just recite these lines to each other all the time. And another one of our favorites is, ‘I can’t build you a candy house, honey! When it rains, it’ll melt!’ So, we started calling this place our Candy House when we bought it, because it was such a huge upgrade for us.”
Still chuckling, Cleaves off-handedly refers to the whole venture — 28 years in the making — as “the family business.” But a track off of his last album seems a far better fit. What these two happy and hard-working Maine transplants have built here is nothing less than a genuine “Texas Love Song.”
So to start out, 27 years and 13 releases into your recording career, you’ve finally got an album out on vinyl. Did you ever think you’d see that happen, even after the format started to make a comeback?
No. I really didn’t think I had enough sort of hipster, younger fans that were in on that scene, or that trend. But I had just enough fans contact us and bug us about it over the last couple of years to finally consider giving it a try. It was also just from looking at the charts and seeing how CDs keep on going down and LPs keep on going up, along with the realization that … You know, I started streaming in the last couple of years, since the last record, just to understand it. So I got an Apple Music account, and a free Spotify account, just to see how it works, and you know, it’s tough to beat. It’s just so easy and hard to turn down; like, I heard about the new Jason Eady record, and I could listen to the whole thing as soon as I wanted to, and I thought, what a great record — I love it. But as a fan, how do you reconcile that with supporting your favorite artists? Well, for instance, what I do is, I went to the Fred Eaglesmith show at Fischer a year ago, bought his new CD, and never even opened it — I just listen to it on Spotify of Apple Music. So, it just sort of clicked in my brain that as it gets easier and easier to stream and that becomes the way most people consume music, as artists we need to embrace the opportunities it offers, but also figure out how to supplement it with some kind of souvenir for the people who come to the gigs and who’ve been fans for a long time. And that souvenir can be anything: a T-shirt, a CD, vinyl, whatever.
So does that make you feel like you’re in the souvenir business now? Like, “Hey, I wrote and recorded a new souvenir!”
[Laughs] Well, songs aren’t souvenirs. But the artifacts are. But still, the lion’s share of our yearly income is from shows, of course, and the amount that we get from royalties and sales has always been, I don’t know, maybe about a third. And going forward, the mailbox money part of it is going to be more from streaming and less from physical distribution.
I’ve actually been working on a database project that will maybe help answer the question I hear from fans of, “Who should we buy the record from? What gets you the most money?” So I break it down saying, OK, the album costs, say, $36,000 to make. If you buy it direct from us at slaidcleaves.com, you pay me $15, and I have to pay 92 cents in co-writer or producer royalties, so I get $14 of that. If you buy it through a distributor like Amazon, or at Waterloo or Lone Star Music, I only get $6, but that’s cool — you’re supporting the local record store, so that’s good. And if you listen to it on Spotify … I can’t remember what the exact number is, but you would have to listen to the whole album something like 300 times, and even then, I’d only get like, $3. Anyway, I’m going to post that as a blog on my site to tell people, “As far as I know, this is how it works out. So if you want to stream, that’s great. Just come to a gig or buy a T-shirt, and we’ll be good — we’ll survive.”
Last night I re-read the guest piece you wrote for our magazine, “Growing Up,” about how you met (fellow artist and frequent co-writer) Rod Picott as a kid and started your first band together up in Maine. As consumed as you were with the music of your heroes at that age — most notably, Bruce Springsteen and the Clash — as an adult, have you kept that habit up? You said you only recently started streaming, but prior to that, were you always a big record buyer, or did that slow down once you started making your own?
I was never a big record buyer. I grooved on my parents’ records as a kid, and then later, as a teenager was when I bought the most music. And started going to see concerts, hanging out with Rod. Teenager through college, I guess. But after college, when I started performing all the time, full time, I slowed down the buying quite a bit. I guess because when you’re younger, you’re exploring, trying to figure out where your tastes are, and you’re soaking up your favorites, being a completist and getting everything by your favorites. And I think when you become an artist, you sort of grow out of that. I went through a phase around the Broke Down years where I was just listening to my colleagues: Fred Eaglesmith, Rod, Mary Gauthier, Eliza Gilkyson, Jimmy LaFave … that’s almost exclusively all I listened to. And now, I hardly listen to any music. [Laughs] Well, actually, I’ve been listening to more in the last year or so, since I started streaming. But I’ve only come across two or three albums that I’ve loved in the last five years.
Can you tell me what they are?
Yeah. The Billy Harvey record. Not the brand new one (Elephants in the Room), I haven’t delved into that yet, but two or three years ago he put out Dear Danger — did you ever come across that? I just love that record. I just love the sound of it and the writing, everything. And also, Mark Erelli, a New England guy, put together a tribute to Bill Morrissey, who passed away a few years ago. Bill was from New Hampshire, kind of like the folky, New England Ray Wylie; he was one of Rounder’s first acts. Anyway, Mark put out a beautiful Bill Morrissey tribute record (2014’s Milltowns) that I just loved. And I really like that new Jason Eady record. I haven’t fully delved into it yet, but I really like it.
But do you keep up at all with your heroes of your youth? Like will you check in with Springsteen every time he puts out a new record?
You know what I do with Bruce? I’d buy a record, and be bitterly disappointed; it just would not resonate. And then I started buying the records out of tribute, and not even listen to them. Seriously! There’s a couple I’ve bought that I just haven’t listened to.
Now, regarding them not resonating with you — do you think that’s on him, or just you? Like, don’t you think that, in your teens, you’d give a new record of his more time to really sink in, playing it over and over again, as opposed to now where you might spin it a couple of times and think, “eh”?
Yeah, that’s true … I remember not loving Born in the U.S.A. at first, either, and it took me three or four listens to really get into it. But yeah, now that I’m older and more discerning and kind of know what I like and know what I don’t like, I’m quicker to judge stuff. But honestly, the way I think of Bruce is, he devoted his life to those first seven or eight, five or six records, whatever that was, and then he devoted the rest of his life to his family. And I get the feeling that he wasn’t as in touch with his muse and music as he was during the first couple of decades. And that’s totally understandable, and I get it. But nothing he’s done for a long period of time has resonated with me. And that’s a mystery.
With that in mind, are you conscious of some of your fans maybe feeling the same way about your own records over time? I’ve always thought, if I was an artist like you, that it’d be hard not to be a little annoyed realizing some fans are always just going to want to hear “Broke Down” and other songs that record. I’d be like, “But I really want to play you these new songs I’m really excited about!” But in the same way you feel about Springsteen, do you ever worry that there might be fans who are like, “I love those Broke Down songs the best because that’s when Slaid was young and hungry and really had that fire in him … Now he’s just paying the mortgage.”
Yeah. I wrestle with that, and I come across that all the time. I mean, Broke Down, at the time, that really was my make or break it record. I was losing money for the previous eight or 10 years, sinking into debt, and the whole experience of writing and recording and producing and promoting that Broke Down record, every bit of it was 100 percent just make or break. It was like, “If this doesn’t make it, I’m going to have to find something else to do at 36 years old,” or whatever I was at the time. So when it came out and got the reaction it did … I was very gratified, because it was exactly what I had been working toward all this time.
Anyway, that record ended up selling and having a success that I really haven’t experienced since. So, sometimes I do wonder, is that because I was so desperate and put so much into that record? Because truly, the subsequent records since Broke Down, I’ve been in a more comfortable financial situation, relatively, comparatively. And I haven’t been as desperate as I was when I was writing Broke Down. So, does that mean that the subsequent albums don’t hit as hard? I don’t know. Maybe. Or, is it just that Broke Down happened at this beautiful, perfect storm of … you know, I was hitting my stride at the same time that there was still a record industry, and radio stations that would play the record enough that people would hear a song and drive to Borders or wherever to pick up the CD and then come to a show. And some of those fans have now stuck around with me for 20-odd years. And every year that goes by, I realize how much of a miracle it was that it all came together like it did then. But still, every time I finish a record, I think, “Goddammit, this is every bit as good as Broke Down! I put just as much into it, and I think I’m a better writer now and a better producer and I know how to get what I want and know what I don’t want in the studio. I’m at the top of my game! So, why shouldn’t this one sell as well as Broke Down?” [Laughs] Well, it’s not going to, because that whole ecosystem that was there when Broke Down happened just isn’t there anymore. But I’ll still never know for sure if it’s the lack of that ecosystem, or because I’m not desperate enough to make an album that connects to people like Broke Down did.
It’s hard to believe Broke Down is coming up on its 20th anniversary in a couple of years. Do you have any plans to mark the occasion? Could that warrant a vinyl reissue? Or would that have to be Rounder Records’ call?
Well yeah, Rounder owns it, and I don’t think they’ll do vinyl. But I might try to convince them to do that. We’ll see. I would love to do some sort of anniversary release, and it would be of that record, for sure, because that was a real turning point in my career. And it’s still nice to hear people say things like, “I had that CD in my car for five years!” Or, “That record got me through my second divorce.” I mean, I’ve gotten great reviews for every subsequent record, but I still hear more stories about Broke Down and get more requests for the Broke Down songs 18 years later than anything else I’ve ever done. And yeah, like you said, I’m always most excited to play my new songs, so it can be a little frustrating sometimes when people still want to hear “Breakfast in Hell,” because after all this time, everybody knows how it ends! There’s not much excitement to me with that one anymore. [Laughs] But, bless their hearts, if somebody has a favorite song, it’s my job to do it.
After Rounder, you were on Music Road Records for a few years. But you’re putting Ghost on the Car Radio out completely on your own, aren’t you?
Yeah. For the first time since the Brave and Free cassette in 1994, I’m totally on my own with this one. Paying for it all with credit cards and savings. It’s been a lot of work, and it’s kicked our asses. I thought of Music Road as kind of a good transition from a full-service indie label (Rounder) to self-release, and it was, but I forgot how much a label has to do nowadays. Between digital and downloads and streaming and now two different physical formats (CD and vinyl), and separate U.S. and European and U.K. distribution — that’s a huge chunk of work. And I’m self-published as well, so I spent weeks trying to see if all my songs were getting counted correctly on Spotify and such, which they weren’t. So I had to sort that all out not just for the new record but all the previous ones as well. I’ve spent a lot of time in the office this past year.
You were with Music Road Records for three albums: 2009’s Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away, 2011’s Sorrow & Smoke: Live at the Horseshoe Lounge, and 2013’s Still Fighting the War. Last year, both the label and a lot of its associated artists took a lot of heat on social media because of billionaire owner Kelcy Warren’s Energy Transfer Partners company and its controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. As one of Warren’s principal partners in the label, Jimmy LaFave seemed to attract the brunt of that heat on Facebook from protesters and activists, including some fans and fellow artists. You’ve never struck me as overtly political, or at least not outspokenly so in your music, but — what was your reaction to all of that at the time? I know you weren’t on Music Road any longer at that point, but Kelcy Warren had no doubt been a big advocate and fan of yours for years, and you’d of course been friends and colleagues with Jimmy for even longer. Can you talk at all about your thoughts on the whole situation?
Right. Well, I just sort of breathed a sigh of relief that all the bad stuff happened after I had left the label; I had left the label two years before all of this happened. So I didn’t have to make that moral decision of, “Do I divorce myself, do I divest, or do I make a statement?” I wasn’t forced to. And, sometimes I think maybe I was a coward for not voluntarily coming out. It’s a tough situation, because yeah, Kelcy was very good to me as a musical partner. It was a good deal for me. It worked well, and he was personally very good with me and shared with me …
The major pipeline controversy aside, he’s by all accounts a genuine, diehard music fan …
Yeah, a genuine music fan, and a genuinely generous person with people he associates with and partners with. Several times Karen and I were able to go to some of his complexes and hang out for a week or so; we went to his place in Honduras and his place in Colorado, and a ranch in North Atlanta. And I actually wrote a lot of the Still Fighting the War songs at his guest house up in Cherokee. So he was very generous in letting us do those things. But then when the bad things started happening, I started thinking, you know, “Dangit, Kelcy — you didn’t handle this right.” That’s what I felt. And I’m glad I didn’t have to publicly come out and say that, because we weren’t associated anymore, and I wasn’t dealing with him. If I was still associated, I would have had to come out and say, “Kelcy, you didn’t handle this right, and you need to make it right.” He’s a really smart guy, but he kind of bit off more than he could chew, or he just didn’t see the optics of the situation like he should have, or … I feel like in his mind, he probably thought he did everything right to the letter of the law, and that he shouldn’t have to do any more. But he should have seen that you have to go beyond the letter of the law when you’re in the public eye and bad things are happening in your name. You need to address them a little more graciously, or a little more smartly. I’d say “aggressively,” but I mean just aggressively in terms of handling the situation and resolving the situation — making all parties work together, you know? Making it good for everybody.
But that’s neither here nor there, because I’m not friends with him … He doesn’t have my ear, we don’t talk, and I haven’t seen him in three or four years. But, it broke my heart to see Jimmy taking on the brunt of that, and I know that was really hard on him and his family. And when I saw people attacking him on social media — which I pretty much stay away from in general, but Karen showed me what people were saying about Jimmy — it was just heartbreaking, because what I realized was that social media encourages people to spout off on stuff that they don’t really know everything about. I knew a lot of the facts of that situation that other people who were just viciously tearing into Jimmy didn’t know.
Did you catch any of the heat yourself?
I did have one troll of my own, now that I think about it. I had one troll attack me on Twitter for being Music Road related. And my first line of defense was, you know, “I left that label two years ago, so do your homework.” But this guy continued to insult me and disparage me and disparage Kelcy and disparage Jimmy. Basically, he was spouting untruths. And I tried to say, “Look, I understand that there’s an argument to be made against what Kelcy’s doing, but you’ve got to get all your facts right, and you don’t have them right, and you’re making yourself look stupid and you’re giving the other side ammunition against you.” I was just disgusted with the way that so much “fake news” shows up — before that term really even existed — how much fake reality shows up on social media, and how vociferous people are on topics that they don’t fully understand or know the facts about. It was disillusioning, and I think that probably helped me write the (new album’s) “Drunken Barber’s Hand” song, maybe.
On a much lighter note … just the other day, your old friend Michael O’Connor, who has a new record of his own coming out, tried to stir up a faux Twitter feud with you. I took the liberty of tagging Rod Picott in the thread, and for a couple of hours it was a lot of fun watching the three of take playful swings at each other — with a lot of the blows being self-inflicted. But prior to that, I can’t recall ever seeing you engage much at all on social media. A lot of your friends and peers, like Ray Wylie, have certainly seemed to embrace it over the last few years, but you still seem to keep it at arm’s length. What’s kept you away?
Well … I remember Rounder made me get a MySpace page, and I never got into that. Always hated it. And when it died, and Facebook was rising, I thought, “Well this isn’t going anywhere; this is going to die just like MySpace.” So I never fully embraced Facebook, and whenever I did, I just found it overwhelmingly complex; there’s so many choices and interfaces. So I made Karen take that over, just to keep people informed as to what’s going on. And I just checked … I signed up with Twitter in 2010 — I can’t believe I’ve been on Twitter that long. But Ray Wylie approached me about five or six years ago and was like, “You’ve got to try this, you’ve got to do this.” And I just didn’t get it. But I’ve followed Ray and Mary Gauthier on there and watched what they do for a couple of years, and I’ve just slowly tried to kind of emulate them and figure it out. So I’m more comfortable on Twitter now because it’s so limited and so basic, and I’m trying to use it to show people the “fun side” of me, I guess. [Laughs] Like with goofy stuff, like the Michael O’Connor/Rod Picott feud. But I know damn well that only you and a handful of my other friends or fans will even get anything out of that; it wasn’t really one of those “career building” Twitter feuds, but it was fun to match wits with some of my friends, joke about it. But I still have no idea if Twitter is really worth the time and effort; I’ve been spending too much time on it lately because we’re doing the album release, and I’m trying to get the news out that the record’s out, but I really don’t have much faith in it. I only have about 4,000 followers. So yeah, I don’t know; it’s not been a good match, me and social media.
Do you follow Trump on Twitter?
[Laughs] Well, just by following the news, you kind of follow Donald Trump on Twitter.
I want to go back to Jimmy LaFave. It’s been a month now since his passing (from cancer, on May 21). You sang at his tribute at the Paramount in Austin the week before he died, didn’t you?
When he was going though all that controversy stuff last year, were you aware of how sick he was at the time? He kept his condition pretty closely guarded until right up near the very end.
Yeah, I think I found out last summer. I knew he had cancer when he was getting the brunt of that Facebook stuff, so of course that just added insult to injury, knowing that people didn’t know that he was battling that as well at the same time.
Outside of being label mates for awhile, how far back did the two of you go? You were a part of his various traveling Woody Guthrie tribute shows — namely Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway — for well over a decade, right?
Yeah. I think he first put together the Ribbon of Highway tour around 2000, 2001; it wasn’t long after Broke Down. And we did it a lot for a year or two, and then it kind of petered out. And I wasn’t always on the cast, because it went all over the country and they picked up regional people sometimes based on scheduling, but I remember we went out for several weeks on the first one, and that was the most fun. The one-offs that came later on, I wasn’t that crazy about, though, because I like to do a show every night, like a play, to get the bugs worked out and feel comfortable with it. When you do one of those productions as a one-off, it’s just so confusing, because it’s a whole new cast, and it’s all, “who’s doing this song, who’s doing that song, what am I doing? I haven’t done this song in six months, what are the words again?” I just stress out over all those things. But anyway, especially that first run of the Ribbon of Highway tour … it was one of the most moving and artistic projects I’ve ever been involved with. Just the material that Jimmy came up with for between songs, and the way Bob Childers read it, the way he matched spoken material with the songs, and the variety of the performers … That was like a church service every night. It was holy.
I interviewed you around the time of those early Ribbon of Highway shows, and when you talked at length about how influential Woody Guthrie had been on you, I distinctly remember coming away from that thinking, “Oh, come on … am I really supposed to believe this guy grew up listening to Woody Guthrie?” Like, I could understand him being a big influence on Dylan, even Springsteen, but since those guys, who was still getting their Woody straight from the source? And I know now that skepticism was probably pretty ignorant of me, but was it really not those tribute shows that sparked your deeper appreciation of his legacy and music in the first place?
Oh, no … I go way back with Woody. And Arlo, too. In fact I can show you the Arlo Guthrie record that I played over and over, and you can tell I was playing it at 4 years old, because it’s scratched to hell! I was a huge fan of Arlo and Pete Seeger. My mom was a kindergarten teacher when I was born, so she had the Weavers and Pete Seeger records. Not so much Woody back then, but later … was it 1981 when Nebraska came out? I remember reading a Springsteen article in Rolling Stone, and he talked about going back to Hank and Woody and all that early American stuff, so I went up in the attic and got the Hank that my dad had and listened to that and all those old Weavers and Pete Seeger records again, too. And then I finally got to Woody when I started college a couple of years later. The first Woody I listened to was Dustbowl Ballads, and I didn’t get it; I was like, “What does a 20-year-old college kid in Boston have to do with Dustbowl people?” I didn’t connect. But then I put on the Library of Congress Recordings, by Alan Lomax — with the talking in between and the stories that Woody used to set up the songs and the back and forth and the passing of the whiskey bottle? That’s a three album set, and I spent hours in the Tufts library listening to that album on vinyl. It all just clicked. What struck me was the economy of those songs; they’re so simple, so direct, but with so much wit packed into them and so much great language and colloquialisms. And exciting characters, too: bank robbers and politicians and buffalo skinners and adventurers. I was just starting to write songs of my own around then, but you know, I learned a lot of Woody Guthrie songs. And when I first started playing guitar and singing for people on the streets of Cork, Ireland, I probably had, I don’t know, 20 or 25 Woody Guthrie songs as part of my repertoire.
Anyway, I think that’s what actually brought my attention to Jimmy, too, because even when I was doing open mics in Austin, when I first got here, I was still doing obscure Woody Guthrie songs alongside my own. So Jimmy got me on the bill for Greg Johnson’s Woody Guthrie tribute show in the winter of ’93, after I’d been here about a year. And I wanted to impress everybody with like the coolest, most obscure Woody Gutrhie song, so I put to music “This Morning I am Born Again,” which Woody never recorded. At least as far as anyone knows; it’s just lyrics that came out in the Pastures of Plenty book that Dave Marsh put out in 1990. So I took those lyrics, put them to music, played them at the Woody Guthrie tribute. And Jimmy heard it and said, “You’ve got to send that to Nora [Guthrie, Woody’s daughter] and get permission for it so you can record it.” And I did; I sent a cassette up, and never heard from her. But Jimmy lobbied on my behalf over a couple of years I think it was, just kept bugging her about it.
Evidently it worked. [Cleave’s recording of “This Morning I am Born Again” eventually appeared on Broke Down.]
Well, Nora at the time was taking over from Harold Leventhal, who had been Woody’s manager for all those years. And story — as she told me years later — was that she saw Harold throw my cassette in the wastebasket, saying “The temerity … the audacity of this young whippersnapper, trying to add music to Woody Guthrie’s oeuvre!” But Nora says that she fished it out of the wastebasket and put it on the shelf, and when Harold was done, she said, “Maybe this kid has something.” And she claims that that was the first time that Woody Guthrie’s words were put to music in the modern era.
Even before Billy Bragg and Wilco?
According to Nora. I’m not sure, but that’s what she says. [Although Billy Bragg and Wilco’s first album of Woody songs, Mermaid Avenue, was released in 1998, two years before Broke Down, Bragg writes in the liner notes that Nora Guthrie first approached him with the idea of putting her father’s “lost songs” to music in the spring of 1995.]
You’ve no doubt told this story before, but I forget — how exactly did you end up busking in Cork, Ireland?
My freshman year of college, I fell in love with this Irish-American girl — a girl from Connecticut, but her grandparents were Irish. And we were just, you know, a hot and heavy college romance, and in our sophomore year, she decided she wanted to do her junior year in Cork, Ireland, where her grandparents were from. And I had no interest in Ireland at the time; I was a big U2 fan, but that was about it. And I resisted a little bit, but I went, “OK, this will be an adventure, we’ll do this together and it will be very romantic.” I was very emotionally young. And our relationship started to disappear over the summer before, but I sort of naively clung to it, and by the day we got there, we were broken up and done. So here I was in Ireland, 3,000 miles from home, 20 years old, no phone, no car, no family, no friends, no job …
Nothing but a broken heart and a bunch of Woody Guthrie songs.
A broken heart and a suitcase full of cassettes of my dad’s records and my records and my mom’s records. And a guitar that the girlfriend had given me for my birthday the previous year. So when I saw the buskers on the streets of Cork, which had a great downtown scene, there were always three or four buskers — guitar players, flute players, harp players, even an escape artist who did a show — I just thought, “That’s what I’m going to do.” And I learned a song a day for about a month, and then I stepped out onto the street and sang and played in front of people for the first time.
Didn’t you have a band in high school, though? The Magic Rats, with Rod Picott?
Well, yeah. And I mean, I had sung a little before … I was the keyboard player in the bands with Rod Picott, and then my next band was a cover band with some local guys, and we ended up firing our lead singer but we still had gigs booked, so the rest of us all had to learn to sing a fourth of the songs each. I actually have a picture from those days … check this out!
[He leads me into the adjoining room and points out a framed snapshot of himself onstage as a young man, looking somewhat Bono-ish and very 1982.]
That was our cover band, called the Classifieds, and there’s me, leather pants and all. I was the keyboard player, but I actually got the nerve up to get up and sing a couple of songs.
What would you be singing there?
That would probably be … “I Will Follow”? Or, actually, it might be “I Ran” by Flock of Seagulls. [Laughs] Or it could be a Clash song I’d do from Sandanista, or even “Precious” by the Pretenders. But I’m going to say it’s U2.
You say you were the keyboard player back then, and I see you have a piano here — but I can’t think of any of your songs off the top of my head with keys. Do you ever still play or write on piano?
Not really. Well, actually I played organ on Still Fighting the War on the song “Hometown USA” — it’s a nice little Benmont Tench organ piece. But I lost too much of the skill for that over the years. Every couple of years though I will sit down and try to relearn an old piece, and it’s such a thrill to kind of, you know, mind-meld with Beethoven: to let my fingers and brain do something Beethoven did 200 years ago — it’s real exciting, if you put the work into it.
So your keyboard days are over … but you clearly still have a real musical chemistry with your old Magic Rats bandmate, Picott, judging from how many great songs you’ve co-written together over the years. There are four new Cleaves/Picott co-writes on Ghost on the Car Radio, all or most of which I can only assume will be on his own next record, too. After all your years of collaborating, is there any set formula to how you work together? Do any of your co-writes ever happen in the same room, or is it all via email these days?
Well, it started in a room, in the old days. We did the classic Seinfeld legal pads thing, you know: “OK, we need something here!” Which was always kind of absurd …
[Laughs] Yeah! But that was 20 years ago. And then he settled in Nashville, and I settled here, and after that … we would do it that way a little bit, where we would visit each other and do a little bit of face to face, but once we both started touring, it became impossible pretty much. So literally, “Broke Down” was a cassette — I remember getting a cassette in the mail with “Broke Down” and two or three other songs that he had been working on, and I did my piece and sent it back to him on cassette. Then of course it became via email, and now its texting and tiny little sound files on our phones.
The way it works nowadays is, one or the other will send a fragment, and it’s usually a couple of verses, or two full verses and a bunch of spare lines. So it’s usually a good start. There might not be a melody yet. Like the last few songs Rod has sent me, it was just words, and I would do the melody, or suggest a melody, and then we’ll pass it back and forth. One song on the new record, the “Junkyard” song, I had already done a vocal, lyrics, and music, but there was just something pedestrian about it, and he provided a melodic bridge that turned the song from something I couldn’t use to something I could use. Sometimes it’s just a polish at the end. Like with “Broke Down,” I only added like three lines — and he actually does his original three lines when he does the song, so it was just a minor change, relatively. Same thing with something like “Sinner’s Prayer,” where the song was done, but it wasn’t quite striking enough, and he would provide three or four lines, or just phrases, half lines, to pump that up to where it was good enough to record. So it can be as minor as that, or it can be as big as like, “Take Home Pay,” which we worked on for about three years. I started playing it like two years ago, and it’s changed totally; we just kept hacking at it thinking it’s still not good enough. It went through a lot of different versions. That was a fun one, where we really got the best out of each other.
That’s actually one of my favorites on the new record. Which of you gets the credit for the line “I’m bone dry, but I can always bleed”?
That was me, but he set it up with his line about the blood bank. It’s just a really great partnership that way.
There’s another line in that song that goes, “I’ve got some oxy to keep me moving …” I probably listened to the song half a dozen times before I realized you weren’t singing “Moxie” — that weird cola y’all drink up in New England.
[Laughs] Yeah, everybody in Maine thinks that. It’s a Rod line, but I knew that would be an issue for our New England friends. It still works, though!
Looking at the credits, I was actually surprised that the song “Little Guys,” about the mom ’n’ pop auto shop closing down, wasn’t one of your Picott co-writes; you actually wrote that one with Karen Poston. But you did write “Primer Gray” with him. I can’t think of any other writers apart from the two of you who have found such poetry in auto mechanics. I honestly don’t know the first thing about working on cars, but so many of your songs really make me wish I did. Is getting under the hood a zen sorta deal for you?
It’s a nice escape from songwriting, because it’s so cut and dried. It can be challenging, fixing cars, but it’s not as mysterious as songwriting, obviously. And the satisfaction of being able to solve a problem yourself and not pay somebody is great. But that’s what songs are like, too, honestly. I think of songs as like problems; they’re like crossword puzzles, basically, where there’s only one way this is going to work. They have to rhyme, generally, and the meter has to be right, so it really is like a grid you have to fill in.
Fixing a car is kind of like a puzzle, too, and it can be very frustrating at times. But Rod and I, we’re both from this small, blue-collar-ish town where it really was kind of a rite of manhood to be able to fix your own car. And in Maine, the cars would get rusted out, so you needed to be able to work sheetmetal and Bondo basically. So that was just sort of a manly thing you had to do as a boy in Maine.
Could you rebuild a carburetor by age 13, like the narrator in “Little Guys”?
Not at 13, but by 18, maybe! But you know, I got almost all of the details for that song from the Wimberley Review. It’s almost a documentary song. That shop closed down a year and a half ago, and I wrote the song Woody Guthrie style, looking at the newspaper and looking at details, and putting it in the grid and making it rhyme.
Another thing I’ve noticed about your writing, and maybe this goes back to Guthrie again, too, but your songs don’t often strike me as especially “personal.” Obviously there have been a few that have had some autobiographical context, like “New Years Day” or presumably “Horseshoe Lounge,” or “So Good to Me” — but for the most part, you’re not a big confessional kind of writer, are you? Lots of blue collar characters and working class themes come up again and again, but not a lot of “this is me” stuff. Is that accurate?
Yeah. I think my first few batches of songs were pretty personal — sort of heartbreak songs, songs of longing or loneliness, love songs, crush songs, whatever. And then, I guess just being a student of Guthrie and Springsteen, I think I just got those younger songs out of my system pretty quick, and started writing about telling other people’s stories. I think early I heard or read Woody say, “Let me be the guy who told you what you already know.” And I’ve adopted that to my own saying: “It’s not my job to tell you how I feel; it’s my job to tell you how you feel.” That sounds a little arrogant, but it’s my job to articulate what you’re feeling. And I think I really noticed back during the Broke Down period that that’s what grabs people; that’s what makes people love a record or a song — that sense of, “Wow, that is exactly how I feel.” So many people have come up to me and told me about how either “Broke Down” or “One Good Year,” you know, “When that song came out, that was my story. I was going through this or going through that, and that song helped me through it.” And that’s just really gratifying to hear something like that. So I made note of that and thought, OK, good, that’s the most important thing I can do: Tell people’s stories, ideally people whose stories aren’t being told in the mainstream, and there’s plenty of people like that. Maybe once in a while something happens in my own life that I think I can put into a song that other people will still relate to, but it was part of my growth to realize that a song can’t just work for me. It has to work for other people. I have to picture people hearing the song, and ask, is it going to strike them? Is it going to connect to them? I have to run every song through that filter form now on; even if it’s a personal thing, people still have to be able to relate to it.
You mentioned the song “Drunken Barber’s Hand” earlier, when we were talking about some of your frustrations with social media and what LaFave went through. Where did that one come from?
The phrase was something I jotted down … I caught just a piece of a movie in a hotel room when I was on the road. And I had to leave, I had to check out, so I didn’t see the end of the movie and I don’t even know what it was, but there were a couple of great lines in this movie, and I wrote that one down. The line was actually “The world’s been shaved by a drunken barber,” and it was Rod who latter helped create the chorus: “Don’t need the papers to help me understand / this world’s been shaved by a drunken barber’s hand.” Then we passed verses back and forth, and he recorded a version, but I was convinced it needed some more verses, so I kept working on it for another year. And in the meantime I read that Graham Greene novel about the whiskey priests in Mexico and Catholic persecution, The Power and the Glory, so I got the idea of the whiskey priest out of there. And then all through the election last year, I was thinking a lot about Yeats. So there were all these disparate little chunks of things that interested me, and I just kind of cobbled them together. Which is actually how I usually write. I don’t write linearly; I collect bits and pieces and odds and ends and kind of cement them into a song; the writing is the connective tissue to fit all the little pieces together.
Can you elaborate a bit on that “all through the election last year I was thinking a lot about Yeats” bit? Let’s pretend that went over my head even though I was an English major.
[Laughs] I’ve had The Collected Yeats by my bedside for the past year or so. I took a modern poetry class in college, and some of that language from “The Second Coming” had been in my brain for a long time. Just some really great lines about civilization coming to an end, like: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold … The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” When you read deeper into Yeats, you see that he’s expressing this bizarre, homemade sort of mysticism that he’d come up with through Christianity and Irish folklore and everything, and its very esoteric and academic and I of course only scratched the surface of it in this class I took 30-some-odd years ago. But there’s some language and imagery there that just stuck with me all this time that seemed to totally apply to what’s going on in the world today, with so many things and alliances just breaking down.
So, to paraphrase Yeats … we’re fookin’ fooked?
On a personal level, do you ever feel that level of “things fall apart” despair in regards to your own writing? You said earlier that every time you finish a record, you’ll think to yourself, “This is every bit as good as Broke Down …” But before you get to that point, have you ever hit a wall of not just general writer’s block, but like, full-on crisis of confidence panic?
I did have that … Actually, the worst was right after Broke Down. I mentioned how I gave that album everything I possibly could, and I remember being in the studio with Gurf Morlix, when we said, “OK, it’s done.” And I felt this terror, thinking, “I’ve just made the record that I’ve been trying to make for 10 years, and now I have no idea what I’m going to do.” That was really scary. And when I was writing the next batch of songs for what would be the Wishbones album, every single song I wrote — if it was a tragic song, I’d be like, “Is this as sad as ‘Lydia’?” No, it’s not. Or, “Is this as adventurous as ‘Breakfast in Hell’?” No, not really. “Is this as local as ‘Horseshoe Lounge’?” No. And so, I was really hard on those Wishbones songs, and I did the best I could, but that was really hard to face that. But I survived it. The record came out, and it wasn’t Broke Down, but it was a respectable record. And then I took time off for Unsung [a collection of covers written by friends and peers], and took my time to write Everything You Love, which was respectable, too. And so, the fear gets less and less, because I recognize that I’m just at this place in the cycle, and I’ve been through the cycle over and over, and I think that’s given me the faith that, “Yeah, I’ve got nothing right now, but the little bits and pieces will fall in my lap, and I’ll just have to sit down and put them all together.”
But it never really gets less imposing, does it?
That’s how I feel … every time I finish a record, I’ve got nothing. Because literally every idea that I’d gathered over the last two or three years since the last record, I’ve either made it work or given up on it. Put in the junkyard pile. So I’m relieved that I have a new collection, and I go about the promoting and all that, but I won’t even think about writing again for a year or so. Or more than a year. And it’s only when I absolutely have to get back to the desk that I start up again. But it is … it’s the most terrifying thing, finishing a record. Because you know you’ll have to start from scratch again on the next one.
When you do finally sit down to write, do the songs all come in a pretty tight little period?
No. Usually what it is, is, about a year or six months after a record comes out, about the time that I start getting sick of the last batch of songs that I’ve spent the last two years or so recording and playing, that’s when I start the process. And I do my little three day retreats. They’re here [in the guest house] or somewhere else, and that’s when I just shut out the rest of the world. I’ll get a book to read, watch movies, or just immerse myself in the world of language basically, and start thinking about language and stories and characters. And that’s when I’ll look at a fragment and think, “OK, I know what I can do with that fragment, I can expand on that …” And then I’ll have a verse, and maybe a melody to go with it. And then I’ll move onto the next fragment. I won’t try to finish the songs linearly; I just like to make a little progress on each germ of an idea, and then I move onto the next germ. And eventually some of them start to look complete, and some are still germs, but I’ll work on them all until I have 12 or 15 that are done. And then I call Scrappy.
Apart from them just being your latest batch of 12 songs, is there anything in particular that ties the songs on Ghost on the Car Radio together for you?
It’s the age-old Slaid themes of people going through hard times. It’s … you know, I think you can see that I’m trying to address what’s going on in American society, to a certain segment of American society. Whether it’s “Take Home Pay,” the hard part, people working hard jobs, or “Little Guys,” about people quitting because it’s just too hard out there — I’m trying to touch on what’s going on in the world.
And if there’s one thing that I … well, it’s not a regret, but I am a little disappointed in myself that my music hasn’t struck a chord with much of the culture. I mean, we inhabit this tiny, tiny little fraction of the musical world, and I think it’s very rich in its own right and it has everything that we need to survive in it, it’s a good little ecosystem. But in the bigger picture of American culture? Nobody knows about us. We’re just toiling away in this little corner, preaching to the converted.
It’s not like Born in the U.S.A.
Yeah, it’s not. And I do wonder sometimes if that’s a failure on my part, that I’m not writing songs that resonate with people in a broader way. And … I can’t complain, because the fact is — I make a decent living, I live in a nice house, and I’m self-employed. I control my own destiny. I’m a happy guy, a lucky guy, and I know it. But I guess my disappointment is … and this is really going to sound grandiose, but I really do believe this: If millions of people had heard Picott’s song “410,” or “Drywall Hanger,” or if millions of people could have heard “Rust Belt Fields” or “Take Home Pay,” maybe they wouldn’t have felt so isolated and forgotten by the elites of society, and maybe they wouldn’t have felt so bitter and so desperate and voted so desperately and angrily and, you know, nihilistically.
So that’s my one disappointment, in myself: That I haven’t been able to write something that would break through to a wider audience of people that I think would benefit from hearing those kinds of songs. Does that make sense?
Of course. But still, if you believe songs can do that, you can’t ever give up, can you? Regardless of whether you’re preaching to the choir or infiltrating the mainstream, that’s still gotta give you a compelling sense of purpose.
Yeah. It’s my job to tell the story of people whose story isn’t being told. People that would maybe feel just a little better about the world if they knew there were people singing their songs.