Not all is as it seems on Barton Carroll‘s new CD The Lost One. Chiming acoustic guitars, the gentle sway of pedal steel, countrified bowing on the fiddle, and Carroll’s sweet, plaintive voice all seem to aim for a familiar place -- the tasty, tuneful Americana zone. But then something curious happens: the lyrics slowly turn toward the twisted, and by song’s end toe tapping gives way to goosebumps.
Carroll, who has already made a name for himself as an ace pedal steel player and multi-instrumentalist sideman for bands such as Crooked Fingers and Dolorean, says that The Lost One was inspired by actor Peter Lorre -- most specifically, Lorre’s portrayal of Hans Beckert, the compulsive child murderer in Fritz Lang’s classic noir film “M“. This bears some looking into:
photo by Christopher Nelson
Hans Beckert, Barton? Not to offend you, but as muses go, that’s a pretty unconventional choice!
Fritz Lang and Peter Lorre were able to see so far into the human heart. In the Kangaroo Court scene in M, Beckert describes his compulsion to kill, how his being separates as if he is following himself into the shadows. Lorre plays it sympathetically and humanely. I think what scares us more than a person who does evil is our own capacity for it. It’s something most of us can’t even acknowledge. And therein lies much of the world’s suffering and misunderstanding.
I suppose I should relate this to my music somehow, since that’s what this interview is about. I’m fascinated, like most writers, by why people do what they do. By what lies below the surface. In a culture where everything seems to be exposed, I think there are still vast areas of human behavior that we don’t understand.
In my songs, I wanted to push the typical anti-hero a little further. We’re all quite used to the swaggering, tough, stoic, strong arm hero with a sardonic wit, but a heart of gold. We’re so used to it that it’s no longer an anti-hero. It’s just our normal sense of hero. On my latest record, I was interested in characters who are weak, flawed. Maybe a little depraved.
There’s a difference. The former is empowered. He may be an outsider (remember when George Bush claimed to be an “outsider?”) and he may be remote and unreachable. But he’s still empowered. He’s still a hero.
The latter is weak. Broken. Ostracized. Unworthy. What’s really fascinating to me -- and this gets back to Hans Beckert -- is someone who is aware of his or her own weakness. That’s the character I was most interested in while writing my last record.
Many listeners have seen and heard you play in a supporting role, with folks such as Crooked Fingers and Micah P. Hinson. Have you always written your own songs as well, but kept them private? Or is stepping out as a solo artist a more recent development?
I’ve always written songs. Becoming an instrumentalist was way harder than the transition back to writing and playing my own songs. I had never really considered myself an instrumentalist, and I had to learn my way around some pretty challenging instruments -- upright bass, lap steel -- when I joined Crooked Fingers.
But it was great fun getting to play in one of my favorite bands. And it was way easier to enjoy the music because my ego wasn’t tied to the writing. I knew the songs would hold up because Eric is such a great writer. Same for Alex James of Dolorean, who I also played with.
Touring and playing with Crooked Fingers, Dolorean, and Azure Ray was a great vacation for my ego, which vacillates between totally bloated and totally damaged. It was a good way to re-enter the world of songwriting. I had learned a lot from the musicians I had played with.
You have a different relationship with songs when you write them yourself. On the one hand, you can say exactly what’s on your mind, which can be great. On the other hand, you can say exactly what’s on your mind, which can be terrible.
photo by Christopher Nelson
You were included on the “Freak Folk” themed podcast here at KEXP. Many of those songwriters -- at least the contemporary ones -- seem to just bludgeon listeners with sheer oddness. But what you do is more subtle; the darker, unconventional aspects of your songs reveal themselves more slowly and with a slyness to them.
That podcast was the first time I had heard that term -- and I’m not saying that to be aloof. I kinda get it. And when people mention Devendra, I definitely get it. I’m not sure my stuff falls under that category, although I’d be the least objective opinion on the matter. Still, I was psyched to have one of my songs up there with the likes of Bert Jansch, Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, and Will Oldham.
On your MySpace page, you list Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle as one of your influences... you’re the first fellow Foyle’s War fan I’ve come across!
I can appreciate the subtlety and precision of a show like Foyle’s War. It’s a nice change of pace. I get kind of worn out by cliffhanger after cliffhanger in American television shows -- even the good ones like Deadwood and The Wire. Each episode of Foyle’s war is ninety minutes: the length of a movie. And each episode comes to a decisive conclusion. I think a lot of viewers would consider those aspects to be flaws, but I just think it’s a different sensibility. It’s a pleasant train ride rather than a roller coaster.
Listening to your KEXP in-studio last Monday, I was struck by the cover song you did -- “Something Good,” from The Sound of Music. Such a hopeful song, in the midst of much darker fare.
But the opening line sounds like it could be a Barton Carroll song. “Perhaps I had a wicked childhood....”
photo by Christopher Nelson
Barton Carroll’s CD release show for The Lost One is this Saturday night, January 26th, at the Sunset Tavern with special guest Burning Rivers. Check out his complete tour dates -- not to be missed!