Interview: Ian Noe on how Kentucky gave him a universal view of the world

Photo: David McClister

Why John Prine and the concept album are key influences.

Kentuckian Ian Noe has just released his second album, ‘River Fools & Mountain Saints’, which builds on the success of his 2019 debut, ‘Between The Country’. Americana singer-songwriters is a very overcrowded pond to swim in, and if an artist is to achieve any level of real success they need to have a special talent and their own take on the world. Ian Noe has developed his considerable songwriting skills by studying in detail the work of such masters as John Prine, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young, and using his personal observations of the day-to-day lives of fellow Kentuckians to write songs that have universal relevance. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Ian Noe at his Kentucky home over Zoom to discuss ‘River Fools & Mountain Saints’, how producer Andrija Tokic’s analogue studio helped develop the sound on the new record, and the emotions he experienced when he toured with his hero John Prine in 2019. Ian Noe may have only released two albums but his approach to and confidence in, his own songwriting ability is what you would normally expect from a more experienced artist, which is clear evidence of his deep songwriting skills. What may surprise some is that Ian Noe uses the once discredited approach of the concept album to help him complete his albums.

How is Kentucky these days?

Kentucky is great. We are hitting into the spring months now so it is raining, but everything is blooming out and it is beautiful, and I just love it. I’ve just cut my grass for the first time this year.

From what I’ve read you’ve had a traditional Kentucky/Appalachia upbringing with your father and grandfather giving you the benefit of their musical knowledge?

That is true. We are a big musical family, and mostly every Friday and Saturday night they would get together and play, and I mean religiously every Friday and Saturday night, and that is how I learned by just sitting around with them. I was getting my fingers loosened up enough to learn chords, and I just kept watching and listening.

Why were you different, why did you feel you wanted to try and make a career of being a singer-songwriter?

Sometimes you have a vision for yourself, and you just try and keep on that path. There was never really a time when I wasn’t thinking about music, and that is how I’ve always been no matter what else is going on. It got into me at a very young age, so it is something I just have to do, and success or no success I would guarantee you I would be sitting at a table somewhere, trying to figure out what my next melody is going to be.

What lessons did you learn from making your debut ‘Between The Country’?

One of the main journeys I tried to force myself to get on between ‘Between The Country’ and ‘River Fools & Mountain Saints’ is starting out a song in a standard chord, no minor chords. I have a habit of wanting to go to a minor chord if I’m starting to write a song. I love minor chords, I love fingerpicking’ minor chords, there is no end to the dark shit you can get to when you start out in A minor. I consciously tried to stay away from that this time around, I was trying to start songs out with a regular C chord, a regular G chord, just to give more sunlight to this album. It is the yin and the yang for sure, I wanted an appropriate follow-up but I wanted more bouncy songs, up-tempo songs under three minutes, like ‘River Fool’ and ‘Strip Job Blues 1984’, even ‘Tom Barrett’. Tempo and open standard chords was something I was conscious of.

Is ‘River Fools & Mountain Saints’ a pandemic record?

It is, mind you it doesn’t really have a choice not to be. The first word on this record is “Stranded”, the very first phrase is “Stranded inside a madhouse”. I had a week booked in March 2020, I was in Europe getting the first flight back to the States when the first cases of COVID broke that morning, and by the time we got back everything was already chaos, stuff getting cancelled, stuff getting moved. I worked on this new album pretty consistently all through the pandemic. So whether I like it or not, or I want to say it wasn’t, it is a pandemic record.

What did Andrija Tokic bring to the recording?

It was perfect, it was great. I had spent the better part of a decade just researching him, researching his studio, people he had worked with. Like I said it was the better part of a decade before I ever met him. The first thing that drew me to him was his analogue equipment, and that medium is the gold standard medium for me as far as how great a good song can sound. He did that Alabama Sheiks record years ago, and that really is how I got turned on to him, and when you hear stuff like that and you are working in a grocery store it is great, but when you go to the studio it is like, this isn’t what I expected. You expect things to maybe be flashy, maybe big giant glass windows, or something, but it wasn’t like that at all, haha. It is an extremely cosy environment, and extremely singer-songwriter friendly, bar none, and he let me do pretty much what I wanted to do, so it was a win-win.

What advice did Andrija give you that particularly resonated with you?

One of the main things and this is a technical thing was that he taught me to smile more when you are actually singing because you can get that pitch a little better, and there are notes you sometimes can’t hit. So he gave me a lot of technical advice that I’ve been using since then. He is about a three-take kind of producer, which I agree with, and we didn’t beat anything into the ground and do fifteen or twenty takes. He is pretty quick at realising well if this ain’t working by the third take, let’s move on to something else and we can go back. That is exactly how we did it for two years, and it worked out great. Producers fascinate the hell out of me because you write the song and bring it in and you are so damn sure it will be just like you articulate it to the producer, to the bandmates, and when a producer comes in with a really good ear and can articulate they can throw in so much different stuff that you hadn’t even considered. That is the plus of hooking up with a good producer because they are writers in their own way, writers and artists in their own sense.

Were all the songs written before going into the studio?

‘POW Blues’ and ‘Lonesome As It Gets’ were the two oldest tracks, and originally it was going to be called ‘The Last Stampede’. I got bored very quickly with the subject matter I was trying to try out for that, and then one day, and I really don’t remember when it must have been the middle of Summer 2020  when I got the title ‘River Fools & Mountain Saints’. So I just had the title, and maybe we had eight or ten songs recorded, but once I had that title that is when I scrapped everything else and instantly went to working on this album. The title was stronger and it made more sense coming after ‘Between The Country’ than ‘The Last Stampede’ would, in my head anyway.

What does the title mean to you?

To me, it means exactly the same thing as the ‘Between The Country’ album. The way I see that title, it is in the nooks and the crannies, the hollows, and everything in-between where I’m from, stories coming out of that. ‘River Fools & Mountain Saints’ I see no difference in the titles because the way I see it you have the mountains up here, and the rivers down there, you have people at high points in their lives, you have people at low points in their lives, and then everything in-between. That is kind of how I shaped it to get it out there.

Who selected the musicians for the recording?

That was Andrija’s job for the most part. We recycled through and used a lot of the same people on different tracks, they would come back in and stuff, my touring band plays on it, we had “Little” Jack Lawrence from the Raconteurs, Megan Coleman played drums on some stuff apart from Erin Nelson who is my tour drummer, we had quite a few people come in and play on this record. He makes the calls, there is no short supply in Nashville of musicians, there never has been. Nashville is just where they go, from your highest mainstream level to your independent level, I was like will we be able to find a French horn player on this song and it took all of five minutes to get somebody over, haha. You can’t ask for anything more, and it raises your head to make your songs better when you don’t have to worry about who is going to play on this or that, and fortunately, they love the music enough to want to come and play on it., that is what you also look for as well.

What sort of songwriter are you, how disciplined are you, and where do you get your inspiration from?

I always try to keep a good three to five songs going in my head, whether that be a piece of the melody, chorus, or a line, and I’ve done this for a number of years. It is random to me, I don’t make a time and go I will sit down and write a song, I really hate the idea of that. It is just keeping these ideas in the back of my head, and when I feel like working on it I usually work on it. It is the title for me, once I get the title of an album and say I want to put ten songs on it and I only have one and a half, then if that title is there that is all the inspiration I need to pull an album out of it. Everybody has said this shit so many times it has kind of become a cliché, but it is like a movie to me. I am making a movie in my head and now I have to come up with the soundtrack, that is it.

The way you describe it you could be making a concept album.

That is how I like to put it in my head, even if I don’t hit the bullseye every time, and if it doesn’t come out like that to everyone else I do frame it that way in order to be able to finish it. I can finish it a lot quicker by framing it that way, and I’m satisfied. Back in the day, I remember critics would snub their noise in the early ‘70s at the concept album. Elton John’s ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’, which is a great album, and people were really hard on those albums if they were a double album concept album, those albums would be judged to hell, haha. I guess we had the Beatles to thank for that with ‘Sgt Pepper’ or maybe ‘Rubber Soul’ or one of those titles like that. I love it though, I love the idea of a concept album because it just makes sense to me. I love garden variety as well, there are a lot of people who would say this record is garden variety. As I’ve said, if I frame it that way it helps me finish it.

Will you continue to get your inspiration from Kentucky, or will you widen your songwriting perspective?

I’m already looking wider, I’m already working on this third record. I’ve got about four or five tracks that I’m pretty happy with to go on this third record, so my focus right now is literally to put out as much music as I can because of the time, the gap, you know. I think 2018 is when ‘Between The Country’ came out, and here we are in 2022 so I have a lot of things to make up for. Even songs like ‘Tom Barrett’ had a wider relevance, they may have been small-town people but that was a James Bond character, that is an assassin character that goes out all over the world and does all this James Bond shit, he just happens to be stationed in a small town. So, we will see.

How would you describe your music and do genres bother you?

I think when I was younger I was more precious about genre titles. That has changed a whole lot for me because social media has made everything so easy to gobble up and spit out in two seconds, I mean, it is here, and then it is gone. So much shit gets recycled, and whatever I have to use genre-wise to get the melody right, I will use it. Honestly, americana never really bothered me, but that title seems to be where a lot of the singer-songwriters go or get labelled, but it doesn’t bother me. Is mainstream country anything like Johnny Cash, hell no, not anymore, it is all over the place.

Apart from your family, which artists made you want to become a musician?

It would have to be Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and John Prine. Those are my big three for getting me in and trying to figure out how to write a song in three and a half minutes. The very first person who truly made me want to play music was Chuck Berry, his songs ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, all that stuff and I digested the hell out of that when I was younger. The guitar was literally too big for me to hold when I tried to play these songs, and so once I realised I was never going to be Chuck Berry I very quickly went into the Bob Dylan thing. My dad was always playing that stuff, ‘Bring It All Back Home’ was the first album I bought and owned, and I still think it is his best record, honestly.  People have always held ‘Blonde On Blonde’ so highly, and I love that record as well, but I don’t think it beats ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ or ‘Bring It All Back Home’, but a lot of people will fight you on that ‘Blonde On Blonde’ record, haha. After I learned as much as I could about Dylan’s, Young’s, and Prine’s discographies I naturally went into the Band. Creedence Clearwater Revival is really tough to beat, and that music is so forever, it is insane how good that music is. Lucinda Williams is one of the greatest songwriters that has ever lived, Conor Oberst is also a big influence on me and again, is one of the greatest that has ever lived, for sure. Courtney Barnett from Australia is a fantastic songwriter, she is truly once in a blue moon great songwriter.

How do you know when you have finished a song?

When a couple of those iffy lines stop sticking out to me so evidently, haha. I will get the song and I will just know instinctively if something is out of place. It is the process of going back in, and one word can ruin it for me, it has to be just right. A song like ‘Ballad Of A Retired Man’ doesn’t have a chorus, it doesn’t have a bridge, and that was more just writing it out. They stick out to me, if a line is wrong or a word is wrong it sticks out, and I get it done when I get it done. When I can sit down and play it without thinking about it, a song like ‘River Fool’ when I finished it I could play it without thinking about what I was going to sing next, I already knew the line was good enough, so consciously it was already there to play. When you play it without thinking about it, that is when it is done for me.

What was it like touring with John Prine in 2019?

That was the culmination of everything I had been working for up until that point. When I was in High School I used to call his record label Oh Boy Records, and there was this guy who worked there who was this A&R guy, Nick Bishop was his name, and I guess he took pity on me because he knew I was a kid in High School. I made these bedroom recordings, and I would send him songs I was writing and he would always listen to them. I consider that my first huge break, only because I finally had someone’s ear to listen to me, which is something I’d never had before. He wrote me a long email, which I still have, about how he had let Prine listen to some of my stuff, and just really encouraging, telling me to keep going. Flash forward all these years later, and I’ve worked hard enough to where I have written some decent songs and I got in the room with him and to play a few shows with him. It was very quick and I didn’t take my eyes off him the whole time, and we did two songs together ‘Come Back To Us Barbara Lewis’ and a song called ‘Mexican Home’, a beautiful song. It was everything, you are talking to somebody who has spent his whole life, up to that point, learning every John Prine song, and going to every John Prine show I could find. If you wanted to hang around with us and our friends back in the day, you just had to know some John Prine, that was our test, haha. If you got caught calling the song ‘Paradise’, ‘Muhlenburg County’, that was a strike right there and then, haha. You had to know your Prine. It was a dream come true, and I will have it until the day I die, that experience.

You weren’t too nervous playing with John Prine?

It wasn’t one of those situations where you could even afford yourself the opportunity to be nervous. It was one of those times where there wasn’t even time to think about yourself, you had better be there completely and not miss a moment of anything, that is how I looked at it. It was very surreal to go all those years of being an audience member and wondering what is on his side table up there, what picks is he using, so to be able to get up on the stage with him and get a view into this window that up to that point I had only been able to fanaticise about and dream about, was a very big deal.

You are touring Europe this year, is that solo or with your band?

I’m bringing my band this time, so it will be me, a drummer, a bass player, pedal-steel, and a lead guitar player, pretty exciting.

Pretty expensive.

Oh yes. I was just telling somebody earlier, that really is the hard part about touring, it is literally just the travel and your expenses and the show itself is the easy part. It should be really fun and it is the first time I will have brought my band over there. I love it over there, and this will be the fourth time I’ve played Europe, I think.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums, or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

I’ve been listening to a lot of Mark Chesnutt, he has a song ‘Brother Jukebox’ which was originally recorded in the late ‘70s by Don Everly, it is a classic, classic country song. Check out Bob Dylan’s unreleased version of ‘Mississippi’ and it is gorgeous, it is just him on piano on this take and it is on ‘The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006’. I would definitely throw in Courtney Barnett’s ‘Depreston’ and it is off her first record, check her out.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

The UK has always been awesome for me, I was just telling somebody I have always had a great experience. The crowds are always fantastic, I love the UK and I can’t wait to get back over there, even if it is just for the coffee alone, haha. I love your coffee and chocolate. I hope people are ready for some music because we have all been shut in for so long, but I will see you soon is the only thing I guess I have to say.

Ian Noe’s ‘River Fools & Mountain Saints’ is out now on Thirty Tigers Records.

About Martin Johnson 414 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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