By Rob Patterson
Unsung, the new album by Slaid Cleaves, is one where he puts the accent on the first word in the term singer-songwriter. Though he’s an acclaimed writer of songs in his own right, this time out he does 12 songs written by other writers — all of them friends whose work he admires. On it, he performs songs by a number of his Austin peers like Karen Poston (whose “Lydia” he recorded on Broke Down), Chris Montgomery (who was in Aunt Beanie’s First Prize Beets with Poston), Ana Egge, Steve Brooks and Peter Keane as well as his guitar player Michael O’Connor and Adam Carroll (who Cleaves calls his favorite young songwriter in Texas). The set also includes a number by acclaimed writer David Olney and songs by artists that Cleaves has run into in his travels like Graham Weber (who Cleaves inspired to move to Austin), Melvern Taylor and JJ Baron.
It’s a brave move for Cleaves that works beautifully, standing beside his records of his own songs that have made him a popular artist on the national folk scene after he moved to Austin from Maine, where he grew up and first started performing. From his arrival in Texas, Cleaves was obviously a special talent as both a writer and, as Unsung proves, a singer as well. He won the New Folk competition at the Kerrville Folk Festival soon after his arrival in Texas and landed a deal with Rounder Records that has helped win him an international audience. Though Cleaves is known as a road dog who spends a good bit of his time away from Austin on tour, his status as a beloved local favorite was proven by “Broke Down” — which he wrote with Unsung co-producer Rod Picott — being named Song of the Year at the 2001 Austin Music Awards.
Unsung isn’t a “covers record,” but rather a salute to and celebration of fellow writers whose work he enjoys and which inspires him. And it proves that whether it’s a song of his own or written by another, Slaid Cleaves knows how to get to the very heart of a composition and deliver it in a way that touches listeners’ souls.
Tell us what the thinking was behind doing a whole album of songs by other songwriters.
I’ve always done songs by friends of mine, and I’ve always thought of that as part of the folk music tradition that seems to have faded away lately. But I like that part of the tradition and the sense of a musical community. So I’ve always done songs by friends of mine, even when I was starting out, and usually put one on a record. And a few had built up in my repertoire in recent years, and I got to thinking that I had four or five, and if I had four or five more I could do a little record of songs by friends of mine who haven’t been lucky enough to get the exposure that I’ve gotten over the last couple of years. And also combine that with the fact that I’ve always been a slow writer and not very prolific, and it takes me four years, basically, to write enough songs to make my own records, so I thought that this would be a nice project to do in between records of my own songs.
Was there an element of a cause here, like the title implies? Were you feeling like — hey, people should hear these songs?
Yeah, that combined with the fact that I had no interest in covering songs that people know already. The point is to do these songs because: a) they’re great, and b) a lot of them many people haven’t heard before. The bonus is that they are also friends of mine who I wanna see do well. So that was an added reason to do it.
There’s certainly a Texcentric slant to the songwriters you chose to cover. Is that a result of being a part of the Austin music scene?
It’s my community. And it’s been that for 15 years. I spent the first several years in the trenches playing open mics and entry-level gigs, and that’s where I bonded with these fellow struggling musicians and learned their music and became fans of them. They’re people I met doing sound at venues and gigs at places like the Austin Outhouse. And I did feel part of a community and it felt very supportive and good. But it didn’t last very long, and I got a record deal and started touring as well. It was a cool little group who thought of ourselves as the under-appreciated next generation. We weren’t invited to the party yet and were kind of peeking in through the windows, and we bonded on that. We struggled together, we helped each other out with our songwriting, cried on each other’s shoulders. For a brief moment there it was a bit of a community and I really enjoyed that.
What is it about a song by someone else that catches your attention?
What catches my ear is language and an original way to string words together. I love colloquial phrases and a new way of describing something that you haven’t heard before. I think that’s the first thing. And then it’s the sense of story. And of course good melody; I’m a sucker for an emotional melody that fits the words. And I like stories that have enough complexity so I can’t figure it all out the first couple of times, and there’s some mystery in the song that stands up to repeated listenings.
After doing Broke Down and Wishbones with Gurf Morlix producing, for this one you worked with fellow songwriter Rod Picott and David Henry as producers, and recorded it in Nashville. Why the change?
It was a coalescence of reasons that presented themselves. The main reason was the record that Rod did a few years ago, Girl From Arkansas, which he made with David. We’re old friends since third grade and we’ve collaborated on songs for years. That record came out and it just blew me away. I thought it was his best record ever and sounded great and had his best batch of songs and really good production. That combined with the fact that this was a different project that seemed to require a different team to do it. And also the fact that Gurf was the only producer I’ve had for 10 years, and the records we’ve made together did really well and I’m very proud of them. But I was a little afraid we’d make the same record again, so I wanted to bring in some new blood to avoid that trap. But it was also scary because I had a really comfortable and easy relationship with Gurf, who is just the consummate producer and person. And the idea of leaving that, which I knew would work really well, to do something that I didn’t know would work as well with a whole bunch of new people was a big risk. But I think artists should take risks, and I’m real happy with the results.
Like the records you made with Gurf, the production and instrumentation are fairly minimal on Unsung. Is that a philosophy you follow, and was it also meant to put the songs themselves front and center?
The record is all about the songs and I’ve always been a fan of stripped-down production. And working with Gurf solidified that and proved to me that it works — that it showcases the songs and the production supports them but not interfere and distract from them. So I feel comfortable with that kind of production. And going to work with Rod and David, I told them up front that our goal was to make a record that sounded like Girl From Arkansas and had that feel, so it was very easy for them to slip into and we used most of the same musicians.
Did you enjoy being just a singer on this record?
To be honest, it didn’t seem that different. The only difference was that instead of me spending a lot of time working on my own songs it was me spending a lot of time choosing songs and learning songs. And once I had the list of songs, the record pretty much proceeded as if they were my own songs. There was the constant analysis of whether a song was working or not. And in addition to the 12 songs on the record, I probably tried and rejected another 20, and also had another 10 that I thought would also work. So if we had to drop any of the 12 we had decided on, I had some in the bullpen. There was a lot of work involved in the selection and learning. But once we got in the studio, it was just like making another record — trying to give the song its best presentation and trying to get the performance as natural and engaging as possible.
Do you think your own writing will be influenced by making this album of other people’s songs?
I’m not sure. If anything, it raises the bar for me. Because in my opinion, these are the best songs from this group of writers. So I’ve got 12 greatest hits on this record. So it makes me think my next batch of songs has to be in that ballpark. So it’s going to make me work hard for sure.
Why does it take you a while to write your songs?
I’m slow always. I was slow even when I was a total slacker and had no job and got money from doing drug trials at Pharmaco. I think I’m just easily distracted. I have a very quiet muse that is easily overcome and easily out-shouted and distracted by relationships or just dealing with the world or chores around the house or stupid TV, surfing the Internet or fixing cars. I think I avoid songwriting because it’s so hard and it’s easy to fail. And when I try to write, most of the time I fail to come up with anything or I come up with something bad. It’s really depressing to start writing because I know that not much of it is going to be good. So I avoid it for those reasons. And lately I’ve built up this career that takes a whole lot of time to manage. I’m so lucky to be at the level I’m at where I can do it, but I’m still at the level where I can control it all myself — it’s like a home business. It gets kind of hard to separate life, work and art.
So tell me what similarities you see between Maine, where you started out, and Texas, where you began to build a national career.
The people of both states are similar in their pride and independence. Like Texans, Mainers think of themselves as independent and self-reliant. Maine is the only state bordered by only one other state, so they’re kind of isolated up there. And they’re kind of self-reliant; the Maine occupations are kind of macho — farming, lumberjacking and fishing. And a lot of songwriters come from Maine: Ellis Paul, Catie Curtis, Patty Griffin and a couple of others I can’t think of right now. Maine people are very proud of being from Maine, just like Texans are about being from Texas.
How are they different?
Well, I moved from Portland to Austin, which are the cultural centers of those two states, and where the artists and weird people go. So in a way, I’m a little isolated from the differences, because Austin isn’t really in Texas, it’s surrounded by Texas. But there’s definitely differences, that’s for sure. But one thing I love about Austin and the rest of Texas as well is the place that music holds in the culture. In New England, generally, music is thought of something to be left to professionals and it’s not regarded very highly as a profession. Normal people hire musicians and don’t so it themselves. Whereas in Texas, I found right away, music is part of the culture. Everybody can sing a song and most parties end up with music being made by the people there. It reminded me of Ireland, where I spent some time, and where music is also part of the culture.
Though we’re all anxious to hear more great songs from you, can you see yourself making an album like this again?
Yeah, because honestly, as I said before, there are quite a few songs that didn’t make the cut due to the length of the album. I wouldn’t be surprised if I could put together another one I feel comfortable with. But I don’t see myself doing it again any time soon. I gotta get my own writing going here.