The honey-voiced Jarrod Dickenson has toured extensively across the USA, Europe, the UK and Ireland. If you have been lucky enough to catch one of his performances, alongside his wife, Claire, then you will have been drawn in by the measured beauty and timeless quality of his songs. The precise storytelling and intimate interaction engage the listener effortlessly. Major label release, ‘Ready the Horses’, was critically acclaimed in 2017. Its layered and richly textured songs are a natural progression from more acoustic previous work. The tall, affable Texan with the distinctive voice is touring the UK once again during autumn 2018 and plans to return next year for headline gigs with new songs. Americana UK’s Andrew Frolish caught up with Jarrod and Claire Dickenson for an in-depth chat about recording, touring and songwriting while they prepared to take to the stage in Norwich.
You spent a lot of time touring this year in the USA, Europe, the UK and Ireland. Tell us about the highs and lows of life on the road.
Well, life on the road is certainly its own unique beast. The highs are obviously being able to sing new songs to audiences that want to hear them, which is a lovely feeling and a wonderful thing. The lows would be a lack of sleep and seemingly catching every cold that comes your way! It’s a good life; it’s a good job and something I enjoy doing.
And it’s extra special because you get to tour with Claire as well?
Absolutely! Not every husband and wife get to experience the things we do. Working together can be seen as a tricky thing but for us it seems to work. It means we can spend a lot of time together, sharing some pretty incredible experiences, and when it comes to the lows there’s somebody there who knows what you’re going through and can help you out. It’s a pretty special thing.
So, you’ve been to all these different countries; how do audiences differ in the places you’ve been to and do they react to different songs?
Yeah, audiences are different everywhere. I found in the UK, as opposed to the US, the audiences are very attentive and very knowledgeable. They research music; they know what it is they’re hearing and what the background is. It’s a nice thing to come and sing to people who are excited about what you’re doing but also sort of know where you’re pulling your influences from.
You’ve performed at quite a few festivals this year and you’ve done Glastonbury in the past. Do festival crowds differ from a regular gig crowd?
We have, yeah! We did Glastonbury in 2015, which was quite an experience. The capacity of that festival was the same as the city I grew up in, obviously in a more concentrated area. It was pretty full on and a great experience. It is different in some ways. It’s great because you’ve already got them on your side. Anyone you have at a festival is there because they want to have a good time and they want to listen to music, so everyone is sort of rooting for you from the start. That said, your song choices might change: you might not lean too heavily on the slower ballads or sentimental songs and sort of dig in to your rock and, I won’t say party catalogue, but things that get people moving, get people dancing.
You’ve toured with some great artists, like Grant-Lee Phillips, Don McLean and, of course, Ethan Johns. You’ve toured with a lot of great people in the past as well. What’s that been like and how’s that influenced you? Has it given you any special memories?
That’s one of the really lovely things about this particular job: if you are fortunate enough, you might find yourself on the stage with some of your heroes and that certainly happened for me with Don McLean. We’ve done, I think, 52 gigs with him over the course of the last 3 years, which is pretty special, getting to see him go to work every night and sing songs like ‘Vincent’, ‘Castles in the Air’ and, of course, ‘American Pie’. It’s an education and very inspiring, seeing someone who’s still doing it because they love doing it. Frankly, he doesn’t need to tour; he does it because he loves to play music and loves to sing songs. It was very much the same with Bonnie Raitt. We toured with her in 2016 and she was just phenomenal, still giving every ounce of herself every night and doing it for the love of music. And she was just one of the nicest, kindest people you’ve ever met. So, yeah, it’s a nice thing when that happens and this year has been great for that. Touring with Grant-Lee Phillips and Ethan Johns: two people that I’ve looked up to for a long time. It’s a real privilege.
You mentioned Don McLean playing for the love of playing, so I was wondering: do you prefer playing and performing or do you prefer creating and recording? Which of those conflicting aspects of your career is your favourite?
They are sort of different muscles. Really, I love it all. I love writing songs. I love creating something and I love being in the studio and fleshing out these ideas and getting the things that are in your head onto tape, realising the sound that you have bouncing around in your head. That’s a wonderful thing but, for me, the payoff is touring and playing live. Being able to share your experience with an audience – that’s the part that I love. I know some people can’t stand touring and they do it because it’s a necessity. For me, it’s a necessity but it’s one that I very much enjoy and look forward to and if I’m not on the road for very long I start feeling the urge to get back out there.
You’ve done such a lot of touring that you’re rarely at home. So, what’s it like going home after a tour?
It’s good! When we tour, we often do it for a month or 2 months at a time, so there are long stretches when we don’t see our own house and so it is nice being at home. That said, the road feels very much like home for us. If we’re not touring for a while, we’re trying to figure out how to get back out there – it’s a good place to be for us.
When you are writing a new song, what sort of thing inspires you and how does your writing process work?
Different every time. Every song comes about a different way. If I think too hard about it, it might just not happen, you know! But, for me, it all generally starts with a story idea, a rough outline of what it is I’m trying to say from a storytelling perspective and then, after I have a rough idea, the music and lyrics follow hand in hand.
The storytelling aspect of it is one thing I’ve really noticed about your work. ‘Ready the Horses’ is full of stories! Do you have any favourites?
That’s like choosing your favourite children! I suppose there are favourites for different reasons. Different tracks stick out. There is a tune called ‘Your Heart Belongs to Me’, which is a duet that I sing with my wife, Claire, every night and that song became a staple in the set long before we recorded it. It’s always a special part of the night for us. Getting that down on tape and then putting it on a record was a nice thing. ‘Way Past Midnight’ would be one of my favourites from the record. It was sort of our attempt at a Ray Charles-esque tune. I don’t know if we got anywhere near that but that’s what we were aiming for. We just had so much fun recording it and it had such a groove; everyone was having such a great time as we were playing it that I always wanted to do more takes than we actually needed just to keep playing it.
Is it right that you recorded the whole album live?
Yeah, we recorded the whole thing live straight to 2-inch tape; or at least the core band: myself, bass and drums and Hammond organ and the guitar. All the singing is live and it’s a great way to make a record. Years ago I made one where, you know, you piece it all together…you lay down a scratch acoustic track and then bass, then drums, then a vocal here and this and that and by the end of it you have something that a sort of resembles a song but it didn’t feel like you actually played any music. So for the last few records I’ve made and every record I make from here on, I like to get a group of musicians in a room together and just play the songs and make as honest a recording as we can. That’s what we did with ‘Ready the Horses;’ it’s one that I’m very proud of.
What led to you recording in the UK?
Circumstance, really. A friend of mine, called David Ford, who is a brilliant singer songwriter and Eastbourne native has a friend called Dave Lynch, who runs an incredible studio called Echo Zoo Studios. We’d just been on the road, supporting The Waterboys for 21 dates across the UK, and Dave Lynch offered for us to come into the studio and track everything. He had just got an old Atari tape machine. The day after the tour ended we went to Eastbourne and with him for about 5 or 6 days just playing music; it was great!
Did you write anything in the studio?
It was all pretty much written. There were a couple of tunes that I hadn’t really played live so they really came to life in the studio but a good chunk of them I’d been playing like for a while. I like to road test songs and see how the reaction is. You might be in your bedroom and think: ‘Man, this is a great song,’ and then you get up on stage and half way through you think: ‘This is not a great song,’ so it’s helpful to know that before you release the record.
You mentioned a couple of songs you really liked, the stories behind them and the Ray Charles influence. I noticed on the album a couple of tonal differences: ‘Gold Rush’ feels like a different sort of song from the others and at the end of the album ‘I Won’t Quit’ again has a different feel; it almost feels like settling down at the end of the album. How do you go about sequencing the tracks on the album and ordering them? Does lot of thought go into the sequencing?
It does, yeah. It’s something you definitely have to play around with.You might have a rough idea as you’re making the record of where certain songs will fit but it’s always something you have to experiment with and ‘I Won’t Quit’ definitely felt like a closer to me; it felt like it wrapped up what I was trying to say for the record. Instrumentation and arrangement-wise, it felt like a nice way to close things out whereas ‘Gold Rush’ is sort of the kick in the middle of the album that is a bit unexpected. That one was an absolute blast to record. We were trying to make the most menacing, filthy sounding record we could. We kept saying: ‘What would Tom Waits do here?’ At one point, we actually had the drummer on the studio floor with a metal serving tray and a hammer! So, that was a lot of fun to make! We’ve never met him (Tom Waits) but I think he’d approve of that!
Going back in time to your influences and when you first got into music, what was it that got you into music in the first place?
Music was always around; it was always in the house. My dad was a big music fan, still is. I grew up with his record collection at my fingertips, literally, and I was always sifting through his old albums, listening to The Beatles and The Stones and Eric Clapton and Simon & Garfunkel. All the great rock and roll from the 60s, that’s what I grew up on. As a kid, I was always playing sports, like any good Texan would but, when I turned 18, I decided I wanted to pick up the guitar. I didn’t have any career aspirations, really. I just wanted to see if I could do it and see if I could make anything come out and it very quickly took over everything. I quit playing sports competitively within a few months. Really, all my focus was on music. I think it was always supposed to be that way. I still love sports and a lot of the things I was doing before. But it was clear pretty early on that this is something I’m supposed to be involved in; I didn’t know how exactly but it felt too natural for it to not be something that I should chase down.
It was quite late to pick up the guitar. Was there somebody who put a guitar in your hand or someone you looked up to who played or a teacher who pointed you in that direction?
Not really. I grew up in Waco, which was a fine place to grow up but it wasn’t known for arts really so they weren’t too many people in my life who were pushing me towards music. It was just my love for music that kind of led to it. Now, the reason I wanted to play guitar was that I was a massive blues fan. I first got into it because of Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan and that let me down the rabbit hole of finding all their influences, like Howling Wolf and Mike Waters and BB King. I became obsessed. So, I wanted to do that. I started learning how to be a blues guitar player. Then I very quickly also started trying to write my own songs and got side-tracked and sort of went down that path. But my first love was the blues.
After grown up in Waco, you moved around a lot; you’ve lived in Waco, Austin, Nashville, LA, Brooklyn. All that moving around… where feels like home?
New York! New York is where my heart will always remain. When I was in Austin, I took a trip up to New York, in my early 20s, and absolutely fell in love with the city and knew immediately that I wanted to move there. It took about six or seven years to actually get there, with stops in Nashville and LA along the way, but there’s something about New York City. I’m just very much at home there. That said, the extortionate rent in Brooklyn led us to moving down to Nashville about a year and a half ago, which has been a great move for us. I miss a lot of things about New York but, as much as we are on the road, having a vastly cheaper place to lay your head is a good thing and it’s freed us both up to do more things, such as giving me more time to write. So, it’s been a good move but New York is still tugging at my heart. Of course, living in Nashville – Music City – that must be quite special in its own way.
What’s it like living in Nashville?
Nashville’s great! I lived there in 2010 before moving to New York and it was starting to go this way but now, especially, there are a lot of people who have started to leave New York, leave LA, leave Portland and it’s becoming a much more liberal and artistic place than it was before. It may sound strange to think that Nashville wasn’t an artistic place but, in some ways, it wasn’t; it was a machine. In some ways it still is but there are a lot of creative people there doing things that are not just top 40 country pop music, which was never my thing and not something that really inspired me. We’re starting to see players and songwriters moving to the city that stop you in your tracks and that’s a nice thing!
Are there any current bands or artists on your radar, who you really get?
Yeah! Well, thankfully, a few of them are my friends. One of them is a guy called J P Ruggieri, who actually played a lot of the slide guitar on ‘Ready the Horses’. He’s a phenomenal guitar player but also happens to be a phenomenal songwriter. Just about every song that he writes and plays for me, I think: “Son of a bitch! Why didn’t I write that!” which is a great thing because it makes you work a little harder next time you’re writing your own song. There’s also a duo, who actually come from here in Norwich, called Ida Mae, who recently moved to the city and who are absolutely brilliant, just phenomenal musicians, incredible songwriters and great people. They are another group that every time I see them play, I feel like I need to lock myself away and practise a little while, which is a good thing.
Did all the moving around influence your music and your songwriting? Did you find different influences in different cities, different styles?
Yeah, I think so. I don’t think it’s one of those things where you can kind of pinpoint what exactly it was that influenced your writing or that living in this city led to this chord progression. But there was definitely a shift: the more I travelled, the more I saw, the more people I met, the more cultures I experienced; I think it makes you more open as a person and the more open you are as a person, it’s going to allow your brain to go in other directions and be more open to different styles of music and everything else. So, yeah, I think moving around and travelling a lot has played a big part in my evolution as a writer and musician.
You can feel the various influences through the album; lots of different styles merge. Thinking about your future music what sort of direction have you found yourself taking? Is there a particular sort of song off ‘Ready the Horses’ that is a blueprint for the next album?
I think my records are always going to be a mixed bag, which I think is a great thing because it means they don’t all sound the same. Whoever has to market the record would probably disagree with me because it makes it harder to put a label on it. Ihave really enjoyed gently steering the ship back towards the blues that got me interested in music in the first place. It’s not to say that I’m a blues singer because I’m not. I’ve got too much respect for the people who actually do it and live in but I’m letting that influence seep in a bit more now and the old rock and roll that first piqued my interest. You’re definitely going to hear a bit more of that but it’s always going to be story-based for me. That’s paramount: is there a story and is it well told? If so, then I’m on board.
It can be very hard to define music and pigeonhole artists. For somebody who is not familiar with your music, what would you say to them?
It’s difficult but the ‘Americana’ tag, which has surfaced in the last several years is actually kind of a nice thing because it’s really just an umbrella term that means you can do whatever you want. I think a lot of people, because I’m from Texas and wear a hat, like to assume that it’s going to be country music but it’s really not. My influences would be more blues and rock and roll and R&B. I think it’s all jumbled together to make whatever it makes. I think ‘Americana’ is a nice way to put it.
What’s the future hold in terms of touring, writing, recording?
We’ll be announcing a tour soon for the UK, a headline tour in late January early February. Within the next week or so, we should have those dates, which is great and I’m looking forward to getting back out playing more than a 30-minute set. I should be releasing an EP around that same time, which is a project that popped into my head out of nowhere but it’s one that I’m really excited about. I started thinking about all of the artists who have come out of Texas and thought it would be a fun project to record and cover some of their tunes in my own way, sort of paying tribute to other people who have gone before me from my own state. As I started trying to think about what I might want to record, I very quickly thought it’s going to have to be volume 1, Volume 2, volume 3 type of project because you can’t even scratch the surface in a 5 song EP. It is something I’m very excited about. We spent a couple of days in Nashville just before coming over here, tracking everything live. We should have that out in late January or early February, to coincide with the tour. On this first one we’re doing a Roy Orbison tune. We’re covering Doug Sahm – he had a band called Sir Douglas quintet back in the ‘60s. He was sort of Americana before anyone knew what Americana was. He was this country boy from Texas who played blues, jazz and country and rock and roll and just kind of made it all one thing. I’m a big fan of what he did. We’re doing one of his tunes. A brilliant R&B singer from the ‘60s and ‘70s, called Esther Phillips; I’m going to do one of her songs. I’m going to do a Guy Clark tune, who was one of my favourite song writers. And we figure we might as well throw a Willie Nelson tune in there just for good measure. It’d be rude not to! Like I said, you’re just barely scratching the surface with that: you’ve ignored Buddy Holly and Janis Joplin and Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan and Freddie King and Billy Preston. This list could go on for days so I’m excited to do the next one and we haven’t even finished this one. I’m already thinking about next time! It’s a lot of fun! It’s a new thing for me too because I’ve never gone into the studio to record songs that weren’t mine. There was a nervousness that I haven’t really felt before but it just kind of added fuel to the fire when we were tracking everything.
Any more duets with Claire?
She certainly on it. She’s lending her voice and percussion skills all over the EP. I’m sure there’ll be another duet to surface.
My last question: will you ever go back to selling hats?
Depends if I can sell enough records! I’ve always been a hat guy but, if I can avoid going back and selling them, I probably will!
‘Ready the Horses’ is out now on Decca Records.
Tour Dates at www.jarroddickenson.com/tour