Interview: Carson McHone

There’s an old expression about dying with your boots on. Carson McHone certainly lives up to that. Interview ready in her dressing room,  she’s attired in a raggedy white cotton t-shirt, with a pair of jogging bottoms tucked into her cowboy boots. A Texan from top to bottom, Carson undergoes something of a transformation later on so that by the time she hits the stage at the Borderline she’s attired in a smart white suit, hair tousled – performance ready. Before her show in London, Mark Underwood of Americana UK and Kerry Fearon, presenter of Downtown Country and Kerry’s Gold Country, sat down to talk to Carson about the tour, her latest album ‘Carousel’ and her approach to songwriting.

Hi Carson, welcome to the Borderline – a venue set for closure at the end of August after something like 30 years. You have the somewhat sad but distinguished position of being the last Loose recording artist to play here.
Well I feel really lucky to get to perform here.

When you were last in the UK in January for AmericanaFest it was to play shows as a solo performer, but we are fortunate enough tonight to get a full band set tonight. Tell us a bit about the band members.
Yeah, the bass player and the guitar player – I’ve been playing on and off with them for about a year or so. And I just met both of them through the Austin music scene. The bass player I’d seen play with a couple of other groups; he’d played with a couple of friends of mine. And I needed a bass player for a run of dates and we’ve been playing together ever since. And Andy, the guitar player, he’s a songwriter as well and I’d seen his band play and I’d also played shows with them – and when I needed a guitar player someone suggested him. It’s really nice to have a lead player who is also a songwriter because they have the same sensibilities and space that is required in a song to let the lyrics have their moment. As my regular drummer wasn’t able to come over for the whole tour because he couldn’t take the time off, Andy said, “well I’ve got a buddy in Cologne who could fly over and meet us”, so we met Andrew the drummer on day one of the tour. And we had to send him all the music beforehand, but we’re all pretty tight now.

You put something up on social media recently about “the never-ending tour”. Has it felt like it’s been a bit of a slog?
It’s the longest time I’ve ever spent out on the road at any one time. It’s been incredible, but it also feels a bit like existing in this alternate reality – and it’s bizarre to think that it’s almost over now as well.

Mind you, after your European tour you’re back on the road after just a three-week hiatus – you’ve got some dates coming up in the US?
Yeah, I fly home and I’ve got almost a week at home before I head out to Philly for a couple of days before I fly home, and then I hit the road again for about a month on the West Coast.

Tell us a bit about how the tour in Europe’s been going.
It’s great to be back in the UK. The two weeks I did solo last time in January have really helped get the word out, which is really nice. But before coming here we did a month in Scandinavia and for those dates we went through this company called ‘Rootsy’ and we used their van and all their equipment. The only thing we brought over was my guitar. And so for a month just the four of us drove around in that van, with their gear, playing all different kinds of shows – from hotel lobbies to cultural arts centres to basement clubs – just all across the board. And then at the end of that Rootsy tour, James our driver here in the UK came and picked us up in Malmo, Sweden with a different van and with completely different equipment, so yeah it feels like we’ve been flying a bit by the seat of our pants.

We were saying earlier on today that there seems to be something of a burgeoning interest in Scandinavia for Americana and roots based music. Quite a lot of acts appear to be doing fairly extensive tours over there.
And I recognise some of the names that they work with. I’ve had a couple of friends who’ve done similar tours. They’ve got great hospitality over there; they really take care of you. They cook you dinner and put you up. In the States we don’t get that! Not at all.

The title of your new album, ‘Carousel’ is a reference to what I’ve heard you describe as the “velvet rut” in Austin – where you can get so comfortable existing in your home town that you become isolated and end up endlessly repeating yourself. You’re certainly not following that template and appear to be getting out to as wide an audience as possible.
One of the reasons that I named it the “velvet rut” is because in order to do what you’re saying I’m doing and hopefully achieving, on day 40 or whatever now, I had to go back and revisit stuff and recut seven of my songs, so I was very clear that I wanted to avoid that.

Did you have any preconceived ideas about what it would be like to tour Europe? Has touring fulfilled your expectations or not?
I think it’s been easier than maybe I thought it would be. Any challenges that pop up we just seem to find a way to figure it out. And I was actually talking to James, our tour manager, about that the other day. I was thinking “I would hate to be a tour manager or a driver” – that just seems to be the worst part of the job. And he was like “man, it’s just so satisfying”. Even when things get challenging like when you break down at the side of the road you still manage to get everyone to the gig on time – and when that works out it’s so worth it. I’m not sure what sort of expectations I had beforehand. I’d toured previously in Northern Germany but mainly by train with a group of songwriters, so I didn’t really have any preconceived notions about touring in Europe, but it’s definitely been an experience that I won’t forget. I hope it means that when I come back I can do more.

Just looking at your family background I wondered at the inspiration for a song like ‘Poet’ on your ‘Goodluck Man’ album. Growing up in a household where poems were being regularly written and spoken must have had a big impact. As for yourself, was it really a case of writing poems that you then set to music? Is that still a template for how you go about songwriting now?
No. It usually goes a bit more hand in hand now. I will keep notebooks of ideas or lines here and there and I will also be working on a couple of different melodies that might turn into songs, or parts of songs, and then I’ll put the two together and then flesh it out. But there is also that occasional moment when it all happens at once which is nice – but that’s rare.

And does songwriting fulfil all your creative instincts or could you ever see yourself following other literary pursuits?
I don’t know if I have the patience for that; I barely have the patience for writing songs. I was going to go to school for creative writing and my Mom writes short fiction.

Yeah, I read a little bit about your Mother’s “flash fiction” which sounds fascinating – trying to write a complete story in just a couple of sentences. The discipline of that is quite something. 
It really is. It’s really cool stuff.

How did you decide on which songs from ‘Goodluck Man’ made the cut on ‘Carousel?’ Was it simply a case of taking what you and Mike McCarthy (producer) considered the best ones to take from your debut album?
Mike McCarthy – he and I decided on the songs together. It was kind of like here’s what I think and here’s what I’m willing to do. It’s a hard decision to make in the first place to re-record any of them. Because of the whole velvet rut thing I was very self-conscious about it and I had new songs as well so it was really just a matter of deciding which songs seemed to define who I was the most – you know if I’m going to shake somebody’s hand these are the songs that define me from the beginning of my writing to the three new songs that are on there. And while ‘Poet’ was one of the first songs I ever wrote, it didn’t make the cut because I felt like I was over it, although I still love it.

Presumably re-recording the songs was also something to do with giving them a new life and bringing them to the attention of a wider audience?
Yes, because I was still doing them every night and it was very refreshing to reimagine them.

Mike is known for his work with Spoon and Patty Griffin, and I’ve read that you used to cover some of Patty’s more obscure songs in your sets, so on the surface your collaboration with him sounds like serendipity. But I think it was actually a mutual friend who introduced the two of you?
Yeah, that’s true. A guy that played steel with me – Ricky Ray Jackson – he introduced me to Mike and suggested that I come in and sing a couple of songs at Mike’s studio which at the time was in Austin and so the two of us just went in and played two new songs and initially Mike took something of a back seat and wasn’t involved a lot during the first day. And then Mike called me up and said why don’t you come in and play all the songs you’ve ever written and I’ll record it solo acoustic – “I want to hear all of them.” I said that I’d already recorded some new songs and he said it doesn’t matter – I just want to hear the skeletal version of these songs – acoustic guitar and vocals. Then over the year it sort of took us to decide we were going to work together on a record, Mike packed up and moved to Nashville which is where he got his start in engineering – which is why I ended up cutting the record in Nashville.

I’ve heard it said you were criticised at one time for writing sad songs – for sort of wallowing in the bleakness to make yourself miserable. What do you think about the correlation between sadness and creativity? Is the latter perhaps the price you pay for the former?
I think sometimes it’s all about accessing those deeper emotions and I think you can do that with positive things but I think it’s harder for me, so the easy way is to sort of tap into the sadness just because it’s so much more immediate. And it really sort of demands something from you whereas if you were to sit down and try to really capture a happy moment then it’s maybe even harder to do that – I’m not quite sure. I know that I have a lot more to write about than just being sad, but when I experience something that makes me sad or angry those are harder things to navigate maybe, and so that’s why you write a song about it as it’s your attempt at figuring out why you feel that way – or what made you feel that way.

Maybe they’re just really good friends” and “My broken heart won’t play gentle with my mind” – what I love about these lines is their simplicity, but they’re also really clever at the same time. Do you sometimes think – “there: I’ve nailed it?”
Totally. Sometimes that’s where a song starts. Actually, that’s how ‘Maybe They’re Just Really Good Friends’ started. I said that sentence to my Mom in conversation. There are songs about the same subject, but it’s so blatantly obvious that the protagonist is in complete denial. That song was written because I said that line out loud and thought “why is that not a country song?” Beats me.

A song like ‘Lucky’, where the protagonist hides pain behind the veneer of the supposed happiness of a one-sided relationship put me in mind of Courtney Marie Andrews and her song ‘I’ve Hurt Worse’. I love the whole idea of writing from a third person perspective. Some of your material comes across as autobiographical. Do you find it easy or difficult to inhabit other characters when writing a song?
Yes, absolutely. It’s kind of difficult – at least it is for me. I have to really think about doing it that way. I wrote this song titled ‘You Don’t Answer When I Call’ and we may do it tonight, I don’t know, but I wrote it from someone else’s perspective and I sort of pieced the song together from voicemails that were left on my phone – and so this thing happened and I was trying to figure out why someone would act in that way and to make myself feel better maybe I wrote it from their perspective – and that also helps explain it to me. But it definitely takes more exercise and thought that to just write autobiographically. ‘Sweet Magnolia’ is another – neither of those songs are recorded as yet. That song is also about other people and I try and keep myself out of it as much as I can – but we still sometimes just slip ourselves in…

Are there any particular emotions that you find it easier to write about?
None of it’s easy for me. I wish that it were. I try and write a lot even if it’s not just songs to try and stay in shape. And I don’t always enjoy it. It’s always a challenge.

I know that your Mum – as well as writing short stories and poems – has guided workshops for combat veterans and others suffering trauma. That immediately put me in mind of Mary Gauthier and the co-writes she did on her ‘Rifles and Rosary Beads’ album. I just wondered if that had inspired you to think of doing something similar, or to attempt some other kind of collaborative process?
Mary Gauthier and my mother work together. I’ve never collaborated with anyone as far as songwriting goes and I’m not too eager to, but I think it would be a really positive exercise. I mean what she does, I don’t know that I could do that. I’ve never been to one of their retreats but it’s really serious stuff. And I don’t think I’m experienced enough as a songwriter to access those things that I need to be in that sort of a situation. I think it takes some really strong, gifted people. Maybe I’ll do it someday. They do some really important work. But yes, I have no experience really of co-writing with anybody so the last thing I want to do is put myself in a situation where it’s really important that I be good at it. It’s stressing me out just thinking about it (laughs). It’s such powerful work that I don’t know that I’m anywhere near that yet. Maybe a couple of writing sessions with other people first.

Are you planning on going into the recording studio at the end of this tour? Do you have a lot of unrecorded material in your locker?
Absolutely. In fact before I left for this tour I wrote a couple of new songs and went and demoed them at this church down the street from my house and I was very excited to hear what they sound like. So yes, that’s going to happen just as soon as I get back. I’ve got a handful of tunes that were written before I recorded ‘Carousel’. I’ve got brand new, brand new songs too.

Any golden rules for lyric writing – other than there’s no rhyme for “orange?”
I used to say that there are certain words that you can’t use in a song like “muskrat” but then there’s the Willis Alan Ramsey song, ‘Muskrat Love’ (Carson starts singing: “Muskrat, Muskrat”). I don’t know; I think it’s just got to be honest – and it can be honestly one thing or another – but then you’ve got to be true to that. There are no rules really.

How do you adapt to the differences between playing to a dance hall audience and a concert audience?
Well you have to – or you just fall flat on your face. I play solo a lot as well, so it’s really nice to be able to perform in different places and get different reactions. To have a sea of people in front of you moving and dancing is incredible. It’s also really cool to have people just glued to their seats or just standing at the front of the stage where you can hear a pin drop. And you get a different kind of energy from both, but equally as powerful. At least that’s what I’ve found. Now sometimes like in Sweden where everyone is just too damned polite and I’ll be like halfway through a show I’ll be thinking to myself “do they hate this as they’re so quiet?” And then after the show they’re like “you’re just so good”. That can be difficult but it’s just because people are enthralled. And sometimes when you’re playing to a dance hall crowd and people are dancing and drinking and breaking bottles or whatever – then you think these people don’t give a shit what I’m playing. Sometimes it’s how you take it and what you do with it; I like playing to all different kind of crowds. Tiny ones, big ones…

And you’ve had a hard enough schooling – heaven knows.
Well I’ve had a privileged schooling. Really – I’ve had so many incredible opportunities. And I’ve also got to do some really cool openings for people who are a lot bigger and it’s a different kind of challenge, for example, I went on tour with Gary Clark Jr and I’m sure his audience have never heard of me or would be interested in the music that I play and so you think to yourself: “What am I going to do?” Trying to win over a crowd that doesn’t really have any interest in you is a special kind of challenge.

‘Carousel’ is out now on Loose Music

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