Interview: Jarrod Dickenson on why he had to talk big

Credit: Patrick Glennon

Born in Texas but with a love of the UK.

Jarrod Dickenson may originally be from Texas but he has built a dedicated fanbase in the UK, and he has just completed a short tour promoting his new album ‘Big Talk’ and he will be back later in June supporting Amanda Shires on her UK and European tour. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Jarrod Dickson at his childhood home in Texas over Zoom to discuss how his mistreatment by a major label provided the inspiration for ‘Big Talk’, which brings his more blues and rock influences to the fore and features two-thirds of The Wood Brothers, and a string arrangement by the UK’s Ethan Johns. While ‘Big Talk’ may be different to his previous album, ‘Ready The Horses’, he explains the next one will probably be different again as he sees himself on a musical journey much like his heroes, The Beatles, Paul Simon, and Tom Waits, but confirms his music will always reflect his personality which is his connection with his fans. He also sheds light on his love affair with the UK and its people and bemoans the fact that he can’t get a steak and ale pie in the US.

I normally ask people we chat with how they are, but after ‘Big Talk’ I’m not sure I dare. Do you still feel angry?

At this moment in time, I’m feeling all right. I’m at my parent’s home and in my home town in Texas because we have a few radio slots and a show, but when I was writing and recording ‘Big Talk’ there was a lot of pent-up tension and frustration from previous years, and that came out in my songs and the recording.

Did it make you feel better getting that frustration and anger out of your system?

Yeah, it is always sort of cathartic to put your thoughts and feelings on paper or add a melody and sing them out, and yes, it does help with those frustrations that had been dancing around. For anyone not familiar with the background to those frustrations, I made a record some years ago called ‘Ready The Horses’ which I made on my own, self-produced and self-financed, and we shopped it around a few labels and it got picked up by a rather large label that shall remain nameless, but for anyone trying to work it out, it was the one that passed on The Beatles, which should have been a red flag for me.

It is a story as old as time, it has happened to a lot of artists over the years where we got picked up by a label, and sadly they didn’t uphold their part of the bargain and we struggled to get them to create marketing plans or answer emails or calls. As a result, nothing much really happen with the release and there were a lot of mistakes on their part which hindered its chances of getting heard. It was meant to be a worldwide release and it wasn’t, they put it out in the UK along with a poor marketing campaign, and then it was essentially shelved for the rest of the world. As you can imagine if someone puts their heart and soul into a record and then entrusts it to someone else’s hands and they don’t do right by it, it is frustrating. So for me a lot of the songs on this record were a response to that, and ‘Buckle Under Pressure’ is a very direct response, for instance, in fact, I wrote that song in my head on a twelve-hour car drive from Texas to Nashville the day after the label told me they were going to shelve the record and not put it out worldwide. This was me gearing up for would become an eighteen-month legal battle to get back the rights to the record which we eventually won. I will say that doesn’t happen very often, particularly with smaller-level artists like myself,  without the clout and power of big money and big lawyers. It was a small miracle that we did get the rights back and that song, and a lot of the record in general, was me getting ready for that fight and saying I’m not going to back down and furthermore this roadblock is not going to stop me doing what I live for, which is writing songs, singing and recording them. I am going to keep it going and keep pushing forward.

Is this an opportunity to be the artist you want to be, rather than the artist someone else wants you to be?

That’s it, and on that front, I suppose I was lucky they didn’t pay that much attention to me. I made that record before they came into the picture, so ‘Ready The Horses’ was 100% my own vision, I suppose, and then we broke up before they could have any influence on what came next. So on that front, I’ve been lucky I haven’t had to deal with outside influences on the creative side of things, and obviously, any artist would prefer that rather than having some A&R guy meddling with your art.

There is a more bluesy rock & roll feel to this record, was that deliberate or just a natural response to the songs?

It wasn’t a conscious decision when I was writing the songs that I was going to make a rock & roll record, or I was going to write a rock & roll song, I think it was just the frustrations I was feeling, the emotions I was feeling, that just naturally made the songs come out like that because of the way I was feeling and with that energy. Years and years and thousands of hours of listening to music just informs how you go about it as a writer, and somewhere deep in my subconscious, there was something saying, well if I’m having this feeling then that is what it sounds like. So it was a very natural and organic process, and I suppose I should thank them for giving me the fuel to try something different and to move forward in a musical sense, and I’m very glad with the way it came out.

Is this a new facet for Jarrod Dickenson, or is it the real you?

It is probably a little too early to say, and probably a little bit of both. Those influences are always there, I grew up listening to The Beatles and The Stones, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Simon & Garfunkel, and a lot of blues, I grew up listening to a lot of Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters, and all of the kings. So I think all of those influences have always been there, and I think they just sort of bubbled up to the surface more so on this record. As to what will happen going forward, I expect that record will be different just like this record is different from ‘Ready The Horses’ and that was different from ‘The Lonesome Traveller’. I’ve got absolutely no interest in writing the same song twice or making the same record twice, and all my favourite artists continue to evolve pretty drastically throughout their careers. The Beatles never made a record that sounded the same, Paul Simon has never made a record that sounded the same, and Tom Waits is constantly moving forward. As an artist I think that is what you want, you don’t want to feel stuck in this little box and that you aren’t allowed to stretch out. I expect there will be elements of this record moving forward, and anybody who has followed me for any length of time, it will still be me and my voice and my songs, but as an artist, I want to continue to evolve and grow.

How did you make the new record, and who picked the players on ‘Big Talk’?

It was a blast, it was an interesting time to make a record because it was in the middle of the height of the pandemic. We were all in the studio but we were wearing masks any time we weren’t in our little stations and keeping our distance, and that aspect was different to any record I’ve made, but it was still a joyous thing, perhaps even more so because of the timing as we were all starved of that interaction with other people and other musicians. In so far as how we made it, it was very much a live band recording like ‘Ready The Horses’ and we recorded it to tape, like ‘Ready The Horses’. This one was a little more thought out, I guess because with ‘Ready The Horses’ for instance, we went into the studio the day after we came off a twenty-one day UK tour opening for The Waterboys. We just went into a studio in Eastbourne and cut the record live, with very few overdubs and certainly no rehearsing. It was a matter of getting in there and everything was pretty much improvised. This record, because of the situation surrounding it, because we were off the road and I had a lot of time at home, I actually made very detailed demos ahead of recording this record and really focused on writing guitar hooks and background vocal parts. So there were a lot of things by the time we went into the studio that I knew I wanted to do X, Y, or Z, but there was still a lot of room for improvisation from the players which I hope will always be the case with my work. I don’t want to go in and have it feel formulaic or stiff, I like to surround myself with players that are really, really good at what they do and are inspiring, and I like to let them loose so that they can show what they can do. So there is a bit of both on this recording.

As far as the players, we had Jano Rix from the Wood Brothers, he played drums and keyboards, and he is just a phenomenal talent and is one of the best drummers you will ever hear, and then he moves over to a piano or a Hammond organ and you are like, how is he able to do that. We also had my good friend J P Ruggieri who has played guitar on the last few recordings of mine, and he’s toured with us quite a bit in the UK. He is actually going to do a tour with us in the UK opening up and then playing with the band. He played guitar and mixed the record, and he is a phenomenal mix engineer, another one of these annoyingly talented people who can do a lot of things really well. Then it was a guy called Ted Pecchio on bass, who also played on my ‘Under A Texas Sky’ EP, and Ted is great, he has played with Doyle Bramhall II and the Tedeschi Trucks Band and a bunch of other people, and he is just a really lovely guy and really great energy in the studio, really loose and fun to be around. Then, of course, there is Claire, my wife, she sang on nearly all of the songs, and we co-wrote ‘If You’re Looking’ and that was the first song we wrote together. She has always been there as my first set of ears every time I have a new song, she is the first person who hears it. So it was a very talented team with people I am comfortable around, and lucky to have them in there. We actually had Oliver Wood of the Wood Brothers, he came and sang on the song ‘Home Again’ which was a treat for me because I’ve been a big Wood Brothers fan for years and years, and to have two-thirds of the band play on my record was pretty nice.

Did you enjoy having Ethan Johns doing the string arrangement on ‘Goodnight’?

Glyn his dad just has an astounding list of people he has worked with and iconic records he was on, and Ethan has as well. He is an incredible producer, and an incredible musician and I’ve got to know him a bit over the last several years, he also happens to be a great songwriter for people who don’t know that he does that. We got to do a few shows together a few years back in the UK and we got to meet him and pick his brain, and I’d just written the song, ‘Goodnight’ and I was playing it every night on that tour, and he said on a couple of occasions how much he liked the song which meant a lot to me. I’ve always been a big fan of the horn and string arrangements he did on the records he produced, so it seemed a pretty natural fit for me to ask him if he would write the string arrangement for that song, and he very graciously agreed to do it. I’m very happy with the way that turned out, I thought it was a perfect accompaniment.

How do you approach your songwriting, are you structured or do you just wait for the muse to strike?

It is a bit of both at different times. For me a lot of it comes from when I’m on the road, I will have little ideas and things will be brewing, and I will write them down in a little notebook or on my phone, or record a little voice demo on my phone. It is usually not until I’m off the road that I will sit down and sort through it and see what I want to pursue. I’m probably not as disciplined as I want to be on the writing front, I’m not one who gets his morning coffee and then goes to their little room and starts writing, for me I feel I need to have that little burst of inspiration first rather than going into it cold, but once I have that little idea in my head I’m pretty steadfast in my desire to get it completed and to work on it. Every song is different, some of them come quickly while others literally take years, I definitely haven’t figured out the secret to it yet, and every time you finish one you think that’s it, I’m never writing another song. You do write another one but it remains a mystery, but I’m kind of glad it still feels like a mystery and it is not a formula I’ve figured out and there is still some magic to it.

‘Big Talk’ is fairly short by today’s standards, was that a deliberate decision to keep the messages focused?

It is ten songs so you are not cheating anyone out of songs on the record, but I do kind of feel that the days of putting out a fifteen-song record, at least for me, are behind me. The reason is because of how people consume music these days, I think I will always operate on the album format, I prefer that to just releasing a bunch of singles, but at the same time, a lot of people don’t listen that way these days. Some people have also got impatient, shall we say,  as to how often people release music. I kind of think you are not doing them or yourself any favours if you are releasing thirteen and fifteen-song records and it then takes you three or four years to put out the next thing. I think for me moving forward if you have an eight, nine, or ten-song collection that you think is strong, put that out. It fits better on vinyl anyway if you only have ten or fewer songs, and then you can put out records more frequently that way as well. As far as making it a tight record I sort of lucked out in that all of my songs were like three minutes thirty seconds, or thereabouts, and that certainly hasn’t always been the case and it isn’t something I pay attention to when I’m writing. I don’t like to say, oh I’m nearing that four-minute mark I should probably stop saying what I’m trying to say and tighten it up, I don’t like to limit myself that way. It was just a nice happy accident on this record that they all landed around about that time.

You have moved around America, Texas, New York, and now Nashville, what sort of American are you?

Hopefully a good one, and hopefully not the stereotypical kind, and hopefully fairly open-minded. I am an American, that is certainly true, and I’ve also travelled a lot and lived in a lot of different places, and my wife is from Northern Ireland and we have family all over the UK. I spend a lot of time outside my own country, and I hope that has also helped shape me in some way. I certainly don’t subscribe to the notion that everything is always better here because it certainly isn’t and we haven’t got everything thing figured out and we have a lot of flaws as every country and culture has, but it is our home and you just try and be the best person you can and be openminded and go through life that way.

You said you are coming back to the UK soon, what do you get out of touring the UK?

Oh man, a lot. We’ve been very fortunate for whatever reason that people in the UK, and various parts of mainland Europe, have latched on to my music over the years. Obviously, we are not selling out theatres, or anything, but we have a small and very loyal fanbase who have been wonderful over the years, and keep buying records and keep coming to shows. To have that anywhere as an independent artist is not something you take for granted. Then as far as the UK in general, I have definitely fallen in love with it over the last decade of touring, I love the people, I love the sense of humour and the dry wit a lot of Brits have. There is just so much of it to like, there is so much history, history that hasn’t been demolished and something else put up in its place which is nice, you do savoury pies which you can’t find here, you couldn’t find a steak and ale pie to save your life in the US which is a crime if you ask me. It is mostly just the people who have been so wonderful and welcoming to me in my career and I feel at home when I’m over there.

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?

First and foremost my good friend J P Ruggieri, whom we’ve just talked about, has a new record coming out called ‘Gradually Descending Into Chaos’ which is a great album title, and it is a phenomenal record, and it is a true masterpiece in my opinion. He is going to be opening our shoes and playing songs from that, and I’ve been listening to it a lot and it really is a stunning record, and I would be saying that even if he wasn’t a friend of mine. Another one is another friend of mine, David Ford, who is a wonderful English singer-songwriter from Eastbourne, and we’ve become friends over the years, and he put out a new record recently called ‘Love and Death’ which is another just stunning album. He recorded it in Eastbourne, where I made ‘Ready The Horses’, and he did it with a sort of jazz trio if you will, and it is just a beautiful, heartbreaking album and well worth a listen. Aside from those two, I’m always listening to older music more so than I am than that which has recently been released, I would say Tom Petty is pretty much always in rotation in my house and in my car, as are a lot of other things. I really love that Ry Cooder record with Taj Mahal, ‘Get On Board’, where they are playing Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee songs. I remember being really excited when I heard that was coming out, and it didn’t disappoint. So there’s some for you.

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

Come out to the shows, we will be supporting Amanda Shires in the UK and Europe in June. Buy a record if the spirit leads you that way. Most of all just thanks for listening and putting up with me all these years.

Jarrod Dickenson’s ‘Big Talk’ is out now on Hooked Records

About Martin Johnson 406 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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