Bumbershoot: Interview with Steve Earle

photo by Chona Kasinger

KEXP was incredibly proud to host the performance of award winning and outspoken songwriter Steve Earle, whose albums rocked the long established, and some would say stagnant, traditions of Nashville and helped change the way a new generation of fans and musicians perceived country music. By blending rockabilly, bluegrass, rock, and even Eastern influences into his songs, Earle has continued over the years to explore new territory in his songs, which he does in his life as well. He’s an activist, an actor, a poet, a playwright, and, currently a novelist (he says he’s working on a book in which Woody Guthrie is a character). On September 15, New West will release Washington Square Serenade, a new album by Steve Earle, the name of which suggests both the personal aspect of the album — he moved to New York City recently and married Allison Moorer — and the political — the park was known as a gathering place for folk singers and anti-war protesters for decades.

Just before his performance on the “secret stage” at the Bumbershoot Music Lounge for KEXP’s broadcast, Steve Earle offered his time to answer a few of my questions:

Jim: So the new album is about New York, right?

Steve: A lot of it is. It was one of the major changes that happened in my life. Two big things happened: I got married (to Allison Moorer) and I moved to New York. It’s about both of those things.

J: Did they coincide? Were they connected?

S: Well, I never could have afforded to live in New York if I hadn’t married a girl with a job. They were big changes that happened in my life, one after the other. But big changes are like that — they happen in clusters.

J: Some might consider your decision to move to New York pretty bold. How has living there affected or inspired the choices that you’re making, as far as the album and recording it, for example, with Forro in the Dark?

S: The record is a little different. It was recorded with beats. I made it with John King. John is one half of the Dust Brothers. For me, I co-produced my records with Ray Kennedy for the last ten years. I’ve done them pretty much the old-fashioned way, on tape, using analogue tape recorders. The moment there’s no tape… well, I felt like it was fairly obvious that I was going to have to start to change. I was never opposed to Pro Tools. I just had a really good analogue recording studio and I knew how to work it. Meanwhile, Pro Tools sounds a lot better than when it started. The technology has improved. And I found myself needing more intimacy, to have no one else’s fingerprints on the music until I had it complete. Pro Tools allowed me to do that. So I bought a computer to record with and I bought a Pro Tools rig and put it in the corner of my apartment in New York. Those demos ended up being the files that the new record was built on.

J: Did you teach yourself how to use Pro Tools?

S: I did. It took me three days to get the first track recorded down. There were false starts of course. I did a lot of riding on the subway with boxes with these ingenious New York handles made out of tape. I was just going to get an MBox, a small thing, and then I ended up with a Digi 002. It’s just like everything else — I’m an addict and things get out of hand really quickly and this was just one of those deals.

photo by Allie Pasquier

J: Does being in New York affect the other choices you make, like the musicians you play with?

S: Flying musicians into New York is like flying hookers into Las Vegas. I was determined not to do it.

Allison: What’s wrong with that?

S: I basically got the record to a certain point by myself. (For “City of Immigrants”) Forro in the Dark happened because Smokey Hormel is in the band, as the only non-Brazilian member. I heard them play at SXSW. I was dragged kicking and screaming to SXSW this year. I had to play the next night and I was determined that I wasn’t going to go out of my way, but Forro in the Dark played around the pool of the hotel I was staying in. All I had to do was stand on the patio. And I really dug it. I was just trying to come up with a song that would piss off (immigration opponent) Lou Dobbs. That was the only thing political that I wanted to do on this record. The rest is pretty personal, but I think that the whole anti-immigration thing is so dangerous and so ugly, and it’s part of the reason I moved to New York — because I needed to live some place where I didn’t fell like I was participating in that so much. The idea of there being an official language and discouraging us of speaking a second or third language any more than we already are… it’s hard enough to be literate in America as it is. They give you extra points for speaking other languages in other countries in the world. They don’t come up with criminal penalties for it. But it was just these guys living in New York. I also used Marty Beller, who plays drums for They Might Be Giants and he lives there. And John Medeski plays on it. But it was in a pretty complete stage by the time I got it to anyone. Most of it is me. Though there were a couple of guys I got through John King that I still haven’t met yet, like for the drum programming on “Way Down in the Hole,” the Waits song.

J: Oh, you cover Tom Waits?

S: I’m in this television show called The Wire, and there’s a Waits song (“Way Down in the Hole”) that’s been the theme for the whole five years. This is the last year, and since I have a recurring role, we decided I was going to do the theme this year. The first year was Blind Boys of Alabama. Second year was the Tom Waits version from Frank’s Wild Years. Third year was the Nevilles (Neville Brothers), then it was DoMaJe (a group of Balitimore teenagers). You can count the number of covers I did on one hand.

J: You said this album is not as political as your previous albums.

S: It’s not. It’s about time someone else stepped up, and I’ll step up again. It’s not apolitical either. “City of Immigrants” is pretty political.

J: One last question, does living in New York give you any hope for America?

S: Absolutely. Before I moved I thought I’d have to leave. There are only a handful of world class cities — and Seattle is a great city but it’s not yet there. You have the transportation thing. But to be a great city you need several things, a great art museum, history, a great library, original live theater, and Seattle has a lot of that but transportation is important. I can walk out of my door and in two blocks I’ve started a journey to anywhere in the world.

photo by Allie Pasquier

On September 25, you can pick up Steve Earle’s album Washington Square Serenade, which features Forro in the Dark, as well as duets with his wife Allison Moorer, and beats — yes, Steve Earle rocks out to beats on his latest record, and it sounds great. Go back and listen to this broadcast on our fourteen day Streaming Archive by clicking here.

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