Interview: Ed Dupas

I love Ed Dupas’ 2015 record, ‘A Good American Life’. I must have played tracks off it on my radio show 50 times, so you know it’s a good day when something new from Ed drops through your mailbox. The latest ‘Tennessee Night’, banged out in 3 days and tracked live is an arse kicker of a record, “garage country” at its finest, owning it is a measure of how cool you are, just saying.
It sounds like a fun record to make?

Tennessee Night was an adventure to make, complete mountaintop experiences, as well as dark nights in the valley. Something strange happened to me with this record, it got into my blood while I was staying in a cabin about an hour outside of Nashville in September of 2015. I felt very tuned-in or inspired to make it when I left that place, and I followed that feeling as best I could in the next year. I wrote four of the songs for the record during my three days in that cabin.

Although it may sound ridiculous to some, I was starting to play with the concept of non-interference at that time in my life, which is a way of living that involves allowing things to arrange themselves to a larger extent, and simply not judging life’s events as they emerge. Because I felt such a strong pull to the record, I decided to make the album an experiment and committed to following it where it wanted to go; that turned out to be an interesting road through some strange territory. In the end, I feel very happy with the outcome, and I believe I have come to approach life differently as a result of the process.

Even more fun to play?
I absolutely love playing the songs from this new record. The whole art of songwriting fascinates me, really. It’s amazing when you consider that a person starts with a feeling and ends up with something physical that they’ve brought into the world. It doesn’t matter if it’s a painting, a poem, or a piece of software, the process of how it goes from inspiration to physical manifestation is a big mystery to me, especially when you consider that everything humanity has ever made has arrived via this process.

When the inspiration for Tennessee Night grabbed me, I was much more practised with writing than on A Good American Life, so I was able to lean into the songs more, treading deeply into some pretty raw emotions and topics. It turned out to be an interesting process as, on the one hand, I came to love the songs that were written, but on the other hand, I learned there’s a cost associated with opening oneself up in that way. It’s the kind of lesson they don’t teach you in school I guess.

Is it country?
I suppose the answer depends on how a person defines country music. This seems to be the million dollar question lately, doesn’t it? Is country music simply what Nashville happens to be producing and promoting at the moment, or is there something deeper that defines the genre?

To me, country music is all about heart, a folk-spirit that permeates not just the songs, but the genre itself. Traditionally, country music looks to connect to its fans, to resonate with them beyond superficiality. Yes, the music is aiming for the top of a radio chart, but it’s also seeking to get low, to meet people where they’re at: down where the pain lives. I believe my music embodies the country spirit in this way, regardless of its arrangement – at least that’s my goal in writing and performing it.

There is quite a gap between your records?
Tennessee Night released about two years after A Good American Life, but the record was finished tracking in the summer of 2016 and could have released much sooner. I chose to wait though, as I didn’t feel completely prepared at the time.

I’ve mentioned that Tennessee Night was born in a cabin outside of Nashville, but there’s another aspect to that story. On the first morning in that cabin I managed to get a momentary signal on my mobile phone and received an email informing me that The Telegraph had included A Good American Life on their top country albums of 2015 list. That was a weighty moment for me as, from one perspective, it was a wonderful honor, but in other ways it was a lot to process.

A Good American Life turned out to be more than I’d expected in many respects, and looking back now, I believe Tennessee Night to be rooted in the life changes which arrived following the release of my first record. As I wrote the new songs and worked with the album, I was also taking a long, hard look at myself and considering what changes life may be bringing me, and honestly accessing my ability to deal with those things, especially as it pertained to living a more public life. For these reasons, I was in no rush to release the new record, as it was important to me that it be released not just when it was ready, but when I was ready to embrace life differently as well.

It’s a great sounding open record, is that the recording method or the environment in which it was conceived?
I tend to keep my songs fairly open thematically, as I like to leave lots of room for the listener’s mind to wander. I write songs spaciously and without many specifics, as the listener’s imagination can be a musician’s most valuable instrument. Why fence it in, right?

When it came to tracking the record, the same rules applied. Because there was plenty of space in the songs, it meant there was room for the other players to find their own inspiration and contribute as they saw fit. I’m very reluctant to try and control other players, after all, I have no idea how to do what they can do. From my perspective, I’m in the studio trying to be the best version of myself I can be, that’s literally all I’m trying to do. Under good circumstances, the other people in the room are doing exactly the same thing … but no one can tell another person how that’s done. All I can do is leave room for other players to engage in creating a bigger vibe, and from there it’s just a matter of getting lucky. In my opinion, that’s how a group of people comes to make something which is greater than the sum of its parts, that and working with a great producer.

Michael “Colonel” Crittenden must have picked up on the spaciousness thing, as he suggested a theme of “no licks” for the record, which made for a rolling, scenic, sonic landscape. We had planned to pick one song and break that rule, but in the end no song seemed to be served by the addition of a flashy guitar solo, so the record remained … lickless, I guess?

It’s a proper driving record, it reminds me of sitting in the back of my Dad’s 70’s boat like cars and heading off on holiday, listen to Springsteen and the Eagles, that deliberate?
Unconsciously deliberate, absolutely. I’m a complete sucker for highway songs, to the degree that my little publishing entity is called Road Trip Songs. For me, a good song has to start with a heartbeat, everything else builds on top of that. Songs with a strong heartbeat make for good driving material in my opinion. I truly appreciate you referring to the record as “a proper driving record,” that is high praise indeed.

What’s the car on the sleeve?

Sadly, I have no idea, but I’d be very interested to know if anyone happens to recognize it. As with A Good American Life, the cover is a mash-up of more than one image, with each image having spoken to me in a certain way. I was drawn to the side-mirror picture because writing Tennessee Night was an introspective process for me, and throughout the work I was integrating many of the changes associated with a life in flux. As I see it, Tennessee Night is an album with one foot in the past and one stepping into the unknown; I feel the side-mirror on the sleeve speaks to that uncertainty: caught between an expiring past and an unsure future, desperate to evolve.

The night before leaving for that Tennessee writer’s cabin, I had attended a town fair with someone close to me, where we had a difficult, long-overdue talk. As I mention in the album’s liner notes, the weight of that conversation was heavy on my mind and in my heart as I left the next morning heading for Nashville. The Ferris wheel seen on the record’s cover is from a picture I took that night at the fair as the sun was setting, and I love that it found its way onto the cover a year and a half later; it felt like closing a circle somehow.

So it was a 3 day blast to make the record? As I mentioned earlier, was there a reason for that? You like that process?
The musicians who tracked the record had never played the songs with me before getting into the studio, that was the deal, that was the way I wanted it. I hired guys who were great players, professionals all, and they showed up at the studio with the music charted, but beyond that it was a blank canvas. The plan was to feel the songs out, one by one, and then track the album’s core parts live, meaning: drums, bass, some steel/electric, and of course my guitar and vocal parts. I told everyone to just do their thing and see if we get something good, and that I’d let them know if something felt off.

I remember receiving a dubious look from one of the players, a guy who’d not been involved in tracking my first record, which was recorded in similar fashion. I suppose it seemed risky to him, but I couldn’t afford to engage in that kind I’d thinking at that point, I just had to relax into the moment best I could. Was it risky recording that way? Yes, but that’s life, and with increased risk comes the possibility of increased reward. In this case, the risk afforded us the opportunity to catch lightning in a bottle, and I think we did that. I suppose I don’t get too bothered about those sorts of “risks” as I don’t believe music fans are looking for perfection, only seeking authenticity: something that feels real. In my mind a “trial by fire” recording session is a decent way of evoking something unique and authentic. Still, it was hard to record that way, and the sessions were brutal for me personally. I don’t think I’d do it exactly that way again, twice may be enough.

You went in with the songs fully formed?
For the most part, with two exceptions: Everything Is In Bloom and Tennessee Night. Tennessee Night needed a little more work, but I wasn’t too worried about that. In Bloom, on the other hand, was a much taller order.

The lyrics for Everything Is In Bloom were written on the last of my three nights in that Tennessee cabin, and writing them was a sublime experience, I’ve never felt anything quite like it. In preparing to track the record, producer Michael Crittenden invited me to stay in the studio for three days prior to recording, as it would be completely empty. I figured it would be a good chance to dial in any remaining song edits, etc., so I agreed. I still had the lyrics for In Bloom, but had yet to put them to music.

As it turns out, Mackinaw Harvest Studios has a bit of a reputation for being haunted (which hadn’t occurred to me), and after my second night staying there I briefly considered getting a hotel for the third night due to some high-strangeness. Instead, I forced myself to buckle down and work on In Bloom as a means of distraction from the weirdness, and was rewarded in the end. The song underwent a complete pivot and transformed into duet, which was recorded with the talented Cole Hansen two days later in that same studio.

Another strange aspect of recording these songs is that during mixing we began to notice female voices here and there throughout the tracks, quite audibly in some cases. The song Promised Land, for instance, originally had only me singing on it, but Michael called me up and said he was hearing a weird voice on the song, literally. He told me the voice reminded him of Cole Hansen, and that had him thinking we should bring Cole back in to sing on the song with me, so we did. It was a huge improvement.

It was a strange record in that way, consistently. To this day I hear an almost synth-like, female voice under mine on Anthem, both times I sing the phrase “word they say”. I also pick up hints of a female voice on a couple other songs. Personally, I love it, and I love that those oddities took the record in a different direction than American Life, which had only one song featuring a woman (Tara Cleveland). By contrast, Tennessee Night features strong female accompaniment on five songs, which wasn’t our plan, some weird sounds in the mix just started the wheels turning … I think that’s pretty cool.

Who’s playing on it? The pedal steel on ‘Heading Home Again’ is great.  Tara Cleveland is another new name?
Tennessee Night features Drew Howard on pedal steel, same as A Good American Life. Drew’s a bit of a wild man, but he sure knows his way around a pedal steel, there’s no question about that. Rob Avsharian plays the drums, same as on the first record. Rob’s a friend of mine, which is convenient, because he’s an amazing drummer, as well as a good source of advice. I’m a hermit for the most part, sort of monk-like, but Rob knows lots of players and is tremendously well respected. We actually lost our scheduled bass player the day before Tennessee Night began tracking, due to personal reasons, and when I found out my first call was to Rob: 24 hours later I was in the studio tracking with James Simonson (Bettye Lavette) on bass, and the guy didn’t miss a note; just like that, the record took a whole different direction. I try to welcome curveballs as best I can when they show up, but that was a big one. Luckily, it worked out very well.

Singing with me on the record is Tara Cleveland, who is the daughter of producer, Michael Crittenden, as well as Cole Hansen and Judy Banker. Judy and I play a lot of shows together, and she’s one heck of a singer-songwriter. I highly encourage everyone to check out her latest record, Devil’s Never Cry. As for Cole, what can I say? She’s someone who stepped up to a microphone with me in a Grand Rapids bar to sing Blowin’ In The Wind, and I watched and the place got quiet as we sang. We’d never sang together before that, but we just locked in, and I knew right then she’d be on the next record with me. It’s not hard to hear why, is it?

Producer Michael Crittenden fills the gaps on the record with acoustic and electric guitars, as well as Hammond B3, piano and banjo. He even sings a little on Too Big To Fail. Also, pianist Chris Ranney (Map of the World) plays piano on Some Things, a contribution that really lifts that whole track in my opinion.

You going to tour it? The UK?
I am playing a lot of shows in support of the record, but those are largely regional at this point. When I made A Good American Life it was because songs were showing up, for no other reason- it just felt like the thing to do. However, the record was not released in the United States, it was only released in the UK, and it only got released in the UK because a diligent promoter happened to see it on a distributor’s list and give it a listen. He liked what he heard, so he reached out to me. Basically, had it not been for blind luck, the record would never have been heard in the UK or likely anywhere. So you see, the path I took into the music scene was not the most direct one, quite honestly, it’s more like I looked around one day and realized that I was in it whether I had intended to be or not.

With the release of Tennessee Night I’ve been getting airplay in various U.S. markets and getting the music out there as I should have done with the first record, had I a little more experience. But I don’t have a team or anything, it’s just me and anyone I happen to hire to work with me on releases. Hence, I’ve been doing a lot of learning about the music business, including releases and touring. It’s a huge goal of mine to tour in the UK, and I will certainly get there at some point, but as a relatively new, independent artist, with no connections overseas, etc., it’s something I have to ease my way into. I’ve even thought of getting over for a bunch of house concert shows, we shall see!

Author: Rudie Hayes

Rudie is the weekly host of the syndicated radio show – The Horseshoe Lounge Music Session – playing the best American Roots and hosting terrific live guests.

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