How writing a song a day can relieve writer’s block and deliver a career high record
Nobody can argue that COVID has brought major change and challenges to the world but as with most things, nothing is ever all good or all bad. This is a sentiment expressed by singer-songwriter Langhorne Slim, real name Sean Scolnick, in his interview with Americana UK’s Martin Johnson when they met up over Zoom to discuss his new record ‘Strawberry Mansions’, which incidentally is getting some of the best reviews of his 20-year career. The interview includes a frank discussion of the addictions and associated challenges that Langhorne Slim has recently dealt with and the year-long writer’s block that was addressed in part by the downtime afforded by the COVID lockdown. In common with most real musicians, Langhorne Slim is also a music fan and he is keen to heap praise on his influences and current favourites, including a rave about Portland, Oregon, based Mississippi Records whose output he likens to Harry Smith’s ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’. While he is now a long time resident of East Nashville with its vibrant artistic community, Langhorne Slim is also very open about how much his Pennsylvanian childhood, particularly the love shown to him and his brother by his grandparents, has had on him.
How are you? I hope you and your family and friends still all OK COVID-wise.
Fortunately, it hasn’t hit too close to home but I tell you it is scary, really scary.
How much did the lockdown help you with the writing that became ‘Strawberry Mansion’?
I honestly think if there wasn’t a lockdown there wouldn’t be a record to talk about. For all of the horrors and challenges that it has created, for me on just a deeply personal level, it forced me to simplify my life a bit, to slow it down a bit, and I think that was something that I desperately needed. I don’t know if that is something I would have created on my own, left to my own devices you know if there were still tours and that going on. I was out in California and going through a rough time and I came back to Nashville and changed a few dance moves. I changed a few behaviours to see what the outcome may be. I think for me just getting healthy again after I developed an addiction to prescription medicine that I was on, that was really numbing my soul and spirit and keeping music at a distance. I really felt far from the source, whatever that musical creative source is. I didn’t feel as if I had a line into it and the way I had chosen to battle the addiction was just further digging that hole. I couldn’t figure it out on my own, I needed to get some help with it. I am a stubborn boy, and unfortunately, like a lot of people, you have to break yourself into pieces before you can put yourself back together and I am just grateful I have survived it and continue to do so. I am not all back yet but it is a helluva difference and change in a little bit of time. For that, I am forever optimistic and whatever we are going through, I am living proof for myself that you can feel really down and out and the walls are caving in and if you shift some behaviour and perspective, which isn’t always easy to do, the world shines on you again. It is beautiful and so, without making some moves and seeking some help that I needed, and then we had a tornado here in Nashville, as you might know, and it was bad. Then ten days or two weeks later it was lockdown with COVID for the whole world.
The other thing for me personally, going away and getting some help for the drug issue, and then coming home to a tornado and all that stuff and nothing is ever all good or all bad, and with all the challenges that that presented then for me personally something broke open. There is a Rumi quote that goes something like “you have to keep breaking your heart until it opens” and I think that that is really beautiful. I don’t want to be addicted to breaking my heart but I will say that when faced with real adversity, at least in my life so far when I have tried to confront things within my self that I have been too scared to or been tempted to run away, then every single time something seems to break open. I learnt it the hard way, and it is no shit, nobody learns it the easy way I don’t think. The energy of all those things moving within myself and trying to find some more stillness and quiet, which hasn’t been a great talent of mine, I’ve been a touring musician for 20 years now and I have always been running down the road. It is not all bad, I think some of us are born to do that kind of thing and I believe I am one of those people, but sometimes you have to take a breath and sit still to see how you feel in that moment and it is uneasy for me a lot of the time, but the pandemic, tornado and my own personal kind of adventures and journeys to try and grow helped me do it. I am 40 years old now and I have a career in music, and that is great, and I can just lean on this but that is never good enough for me. Musically and creatively, and I don’t even separate the two, and as a man, I am just trying to learn where I have come from and will continue to. I want to live an expansive life, not a constrained or restrictive one.
For me, drugs and alcohol worked part of the time and I don’t believe they are inherently bad they are just inherently bad for me because I can’t dance with those things gracefully, they are going to take me over and they have every time. So yeah, in making some different moves after not writing a song, or at least nothing I would play for you, for over a year which is the longest I have ever gone without writing a damn song and trying to finish this other record I just wasn’t in the frame of mind or had the heart to finish it. I was just driving myself crazy and driving my friends who were working on it crazy, but coming home and finding myself with all this noise and chaos going on outside but finally finding a little bit of quiet literally and figuratively inside, that something is finally able to be released. I don’t know how music works or how melodies catch people or how you catch them, and I wouldn’t attempt to, but a wave certainly came through and let me write and there were about 25 to 30 songs that revealed themselves to me in a matter of two or three months. I am just grateful for it and I say thank you, it enables me to talk to you about this gift of a new record.
It is a pretty good gift though, ‘Strawberry Mansion’ is a very good record.
It is a beautiful gift brother, a beautiful gift.
‘Panic Attack’ is a very descriptive title. How did such a tough song come about?
It is a tough feeling. It felt good to write it, I had written that song in the midst of one of these panic attacks and I had started to see a therapist about a year ago, and she is really good at what she does, but I didn’t like the suggestion she made one bit. I was talking to her about addiction and creativity and lots of stuff like I had lost connection, I don’t even think I had lost the connection so much as I just couldn’t see it. I don’t know if I believe in writer’s block, but she said when your anxiety hits and manifests into this physical freak-out do you ever play music such as going to a piano or guitar? No, I don’t, because I don’t even want to move and the guitar doesn’t feel like my friend at that moment and she said why not just try and do something like an exercise, it doesn’t have to be anything with any expectation it could be a song. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like it, just sit and play. What she was getting at, I think, was that it is OK to feel this shit and don’t fight it, just surrender, no maybe not surrender and embrace I don’t know, but it is what it is. Swimming against the current, so to speak, you drown. So I tried it and the words just kind of flew out, and the melody just did the same, and I had to let her know that I had her to thank for her assistance in writing that song. I think it was just the exact situation I was going through as far as calling a health care professional to speak to someone confidentially, filling out forms on a scale of 1 to 10, you know the shit. In retrospect it is nice, and even a bit healing, to kind of have a document of that time in musical form. So perhaps when I think back to it it isn’t all negative, mind you, I don’t like to think of anything being all negative or all great, it takes what it takes to get us to where we are going to.
Clearly not a great experience, but at least you are writing songs again and that means you have done something right, it has worked for you.
I am just glad they showed up.
You got your songs, how did you go about recording them? Did you record them straight away or what?
I didn’t realise there was a process at the time because the songs were happening so fast. In quarantine going to see one of my friends outside my own home, he has been a friend for many many years and has been a photographer for the Avid Brothers and my own band, he is just a brother for a long, long time. He and I were hanging out, and he knew very well everything I was going through, I had taken the first song I had written over to his place and we made a little video for it and it felt good, it felt like I am back here is some music again and to feel maybe some connection again with my audience knowing I wasn’t going to be going on the road anytime soon, so it felt a bit cathartic. He just suggested that I should try and write a song every day, which was another suggestion I didn’t like, and I didn’t set out to do that but maybe something clicked in the back of my head like OK, if I keep writing the songs and having the inspiration and excuse to go and spend time with him and we can be newly sober again, and furthering my friendship with one of my oldest friends. That became the ritual and I was writing a song every day or every couple of days and I would bring it to my friend Mike and we would record videos on the spot so the songs were as well as they could because I would just finish them and get in the car, drive over and the immediacy of that in retrospect was very helpful for the process because I wasn’t really allowed to be over-analytical, judging the tunes too much or even writing more parts for a particular song so the songs are really quite short.
A lot of the best songs are.
Yeah, they are and some of my favourite songs are short ones. I think it was good for me because even though there is always critical internal dialogue, and there was, it wasn’t as loud as it can often be. Also, I had no expectation I was writing for a record, nobody was asking for any songs and there was no pressure from anywhere, it was just what was naturally happening. I was bringing songs in and recording them, releasing them just through social media, writing more and more. At the time there were 20 to 25 songs and I started getting fanciful ideas about a record and fortunately, my record label and manager, who I love, got in touch with me and said we have seen what you have been doing and we think that you should but the other record I had been trying to finish for a year on hold and come back to it later, but do these latest songs. I was very happy to have that support and to have the idea kind of match up, but a lot of the studios were closed so I called my dear old friend Paul Defiglia, who lives just down the road. We started a band together in Brooklyn, New York, I guess 15 or 20 years ago, he was the bass player so we started a full circle type thing. He had built a really cool studio in his backyard and we were able to go in there, and my friend Matt Twain Davidson, who is a brilliant musician and human being, drove up from Texas. We just kept it simple man, we tried to stay true to the immediacy and didn’t overthink this shit, just press record. I think the most we recorded any of these songs was three times and we just picked our favourite take, and that is pretty much what you hear on the record with a couple of overdubs here and there. It is a stripped-down affair.
You must know those guys pretty well because to get your songs in 2 or 3 takes requires understanding?
I must be doing something right after all these years that I have these amazing guys, and musicians, who are willing to play with me at the drop of a hat like that, and yes, I have been involved with these guys long enough that it is even better that they don’t study the songs or rehearse them too much, honestly. I sent them some voice mail type demos of the songs and I sent them 20 to 25 and we ended up recording almost all of them, there are of the 19 songs on the record. I couldn’t tell you how many times they listened to it, but I think that they are just so good and we have played together for so long that they can keep it in that raw state. Even if they are just simple folk songs I don’t want it to sound too rehearsed and we try and keep my shit a little wild.
Tell me about your new record’s title, does it go back to Philadelphia? How much Philadelphia is in your music?
It is hard to say, but you can take the boy out of Pennsylvania but you can’t take Pennsylvania completely out of the boy. My mom and grandmother are still there, my grandfathers and other grandmother have all passed, and I was born and raised mainly in Pennsylvania. My father and my father’s parents were from New Jersey and when I was 18 I moved to New York. I am still an East Coast boy who has moved around America a lot and my Grandfathers were a huge part of my life. I have always carried them with me, their impact on me has just been enormous and they would tell stories to my brother and me when we were kids about the Mansion, the Strawberry Mansion as they called it, which was the neighbourhood where they grew up. John Coltrane lived there as well, Larry Fine of the 3 Stooges also lived there so lots of legends come out of the neighbourhood. I just loved those stories and I romanticised those stories and even turned them into mythical stories. I don’t know why I thought that would be the right title for the record, maybe my grandpops sat on the couch with me over here and whispered in my ear. It just occurred to me that that’s what it should be, it felt right on the money.
I have written songs about my grandparents on other records and it is nice to have some tribute to them whenever that spirit calls to me. I don’t know, when I was a little kid I couldn’t wait to be older, all I wanted to do was be a musician and older, now I have succeeded at both and I am at an age now when it is like holy shit. I remember those conversations where I would listen to the old folks when I was a kid and they would say “Where has the time gone?”, and now I am like holy shit, it is wild. They were just of a generation where they don’t make them like that anymore and it is hard to put them into succinct words what those guys mean to me, but they were just so unique and so streetwise, I don’t even know if they finished High School, but they are two of the smartest guys I’ve ever known. I have definitely met people who think they are smart, and maybe they are smart academically, but I think there is the mind in the brain and the mind in the soul or spirit and that is where those men were really connected to and that is where I connect to. I like philosophical and intellectual talk some of the time, but maybe that is why I love art and music because it is the mind and the spirit and that’s what moves me. Those men were just tough, sweet sensitive dudes who just loved my brother and me. My parents split when I was a kid, and I think to have both my father’s parents and my mother’s parents surround me and my brother with so much love and guidance, it was impossible not to have a major impact and not one I take for granted and I hope I will never forget. The feeling of those guys is musical to me, they loved music, they played some music, there was always music around though not so much music that I play though. They loved old swing bands, which I do also, show tunes and stuff like that, and I do dig some show tunes, they just added a lot of colour into my life.
That leads to the question of who are your real musical influences, the ones who are always there with you?
There is a Shane McGowan documentary that has just come out, and I have loved the Pogues for a long time, and so I have been listening to a lot of Pogues recently. One of my favourite bands from the beginning, since I was a little kid in the red leather jacket, is like Michael Jackson but then I started hearing these things on the radio, classic rock radio, like The Beatles, The Kinks and David Bowie who are still huge for me, and then, of course, Bob Dylan. Then there were artists like Bob Dylan, Curt Cobain of Nirvana, that when I got a little bit older and more into the music that they recorded that wasn’t played on the radio, I started to read interviews and see who these guys were into and that brought me to Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly. Curt Cobain was so great about his influences and so that lead me to Daniel Johnston, The Vaselines. From an early age, I think I just loved the roots of many styles of music, so whether it be punk, rap music, cajun music, Otis Redding was like my first favourite singer and so who were these other people who were also doing it. I got into soul music, rock and roll music and on and on and on. I then listened when I was in High School to The Harry Smith ‘Anthology Of Americana Folk Music’, because my High School sweetheart’s father had a copy, and I became obsessed with that and I thought the music was recorded on another planet and finding it was recorded right here in America was huge. Thankfully it is an endless pursuit to hear stuff. There is a record company in Portland, Oregon, called Mississippi Records and this guy finds all these sorts of lost treasures and puts these compilations together and it is the same thing at my age now where I hear things it is like my favourite song I have never heard, well who was that, who does that person like, who else was that person playing with. I have just had a Michael Hurley record on, I didn’t know Michael Hurley’s music two years ago so I was a late bloomer there. Sometimes it is just something that just breaks you open and turns you on.
You have a gift of an album, how are you and Dualtone Records going to get it to its potential audience with all the COVID restrictions?
I don’t know whether it is the nature of the times we are in as far as the pandemic is raging that there are a few more people trying to connect with this record. It has been a while since I have had so many people wanting to talk to me about a record and that is very cool and it will help to get the music heard because I don’t think I will be gigging on the road too soon. I’m not under any personal delusions about touring so I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it though I do feel bad for a lot of people because it is obviously really tough for them, but I just want to stay creative and enjoy the release and keep moving.
Will Dualtone do their best with it?
They are really great so they will get the word out.
You have had a couple of songs on multi-media which must help with getting the rest of your music into the public consciousness.
Yes, it helps get the music out and it helps pay the bills.
Do you have any particular views on the streaming of recorded music?
I would like to see the major streaming services pay the artists a fair share of the revenue. I have a view of it based on my experience which is that it helps to bring people to the shows, and I can’t deny that, people who like certain bands and then my song pops up on a playlist or something like that. I think that there is good and bad in all these things, though I know people who won’t like me saying things like that, and I hope, maybe naively that they will grow towards it. I am always on the side of the artist and I hope they will start feeling good about it. I am a little bit of a tech dummy so I don’t pay that much attention to it honestly. I thought it was going to knockout record labels entirely and I now see all the record labels are dancing with Spotify. I have friends who think all that shit is evil and I would like them to be supported and do their thing. I have toured 8 or 9 months of the year my entire adult life and I just keep putting records out when I have them ready to go, and I kind of just roll with it as things are constantly changing and some changes I see as positive and some I see as soul-sucking and very dangerous. I try and keep a distance from these technologies myself, from some of them anyway.
You have just written a lot of songs and got an album out. We are at the beginning of the year, what are you going to do for the rest of 2021?
That is a damn good question. At this point time doesn’t exist, I have never really thought time existed but it sure as shit doesn’t seem to anymore.
Remember what your Grandad said.
I want to spend time making my world smaller if that makes sense, slowing down a bit and trying to simplify, there is a lot of growth in the smallness without me always going down a road for one thing or another. That is still my impulse, I am still constantly looking for adventure and action and I am trying Martin, and it is not easy, to find the adventure where I sit more than always putting that idea on to something exterior, if that makes sense.
Nashville is not a bad place to be, there must be a lot of worst places to be.
It is a great town.
You are in East Nashville, aren’t you and it isn’t all country music, is it?
Yes, and the idea Nashville is all country is busted now. When I first moved here 9 years ago or something, on the road people would ask where I lived and they couldn’t understand why I want to live in Nashville, now I think people know there are all kinds of music, and freaks, here.
I’ve been told it is easier to be creative there.
Yeah, there is a sweetness here that remains that I think is special for me personally I haven’t found in other towns I have made my home. Yes, this place feels like home and if I am going to be off the road then this is where I would like to be.
At AUK, we like to share new music with our readers, so can you share who is currently top 3 on your playlist?
I would highly recommend anyone looking into Mississippi Records from Portland, Oregon. This guy Eric runs it and the records I have are just compilations of this centre-left music from country to classical, all across the board. I have about 50 records of the music he has put together and it is just fantastic. I am a big fan of Matt Twain Davidson, who is on the record, and there is a band out of Lafayette, Louisiana, called the Lost Bayou Ramblers that I am a huge fan of. I would say they are traditional cajun mixed with punk rock. There is also Skyway Man who is just a beautiful weirdo, great musician and a great songwriter.
Finally, is there anything you want to say to our readers in the UK?
I hope I see you before too damn long.
It is probably going to be 2022.
I tell you, I will take it. We have our issues here but I think there are global human issues and I continue to hope for more kindness in this world and less division, and less need to be certain about every damn thing as more curiosity would do us all some good. I won’t start preaching or anything, but that is what I hope for myself anyway.
Langhorne Slim’s ‘Strawberry Mansions’ is out now on Dualtone Records
Mississippi Records website can be found here.