How a throwaway remark by Jason Isbell changed Rod Picott from a tenor to a baritone.
Rod Picott grew up in South Berwick, Maine, and originally worked in the construction industry. However, he knew he wanted to be a songwriter even though he didn’t at the time have the requisite skills or even the support of his community as he thought about his future. From this uninspiring beginning, he has made a name for himself as a songwriter’s songwriter with a critically acclaimed catalogue of 14 records, of which his latest, ‘Paper Hearts and Broken Arrows’, is possibly his best. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Rod Picott over Zoom to discuss ‘Paper Hearts and Broken Arrows’ and what it feels like to be a dedicated songwriter. Rod Picott also gives a glimpse into the life of a hard-working singer-songwriter who has critical acclaim and a fanatical but niche fanbase, and for any aspiring musicians he also explains the sheer thrill of playing a chord on an electric guitar and why playing live is one of life’s real joys, but he also explains the harsher reality of what needs to be done to be able to play to a live audience. Finally, accepting he is not getting any younger, Rod Picott ponders on whether he will increase his current literary side-line activities and cut back on his 200 gigs a year touring regime.
How are you?
Like all the other musicians playing on the margins of this industry, it has been a struggle, but I keep fighting the good fight. We have lost a lot of good people, and I think of some of the good musicians who have gone through the last two years who have just thrown their hands up and said it is not working the way it needs to work for me, so I’m going to have to move on to something else. I wish the arts were more supported than they are, particularly in The States where there is not a lot of support for the arts. Being an artist is basically a vow of poverty, haha.
During the pandemic, you released an album of self-covers of Slaid Cleaves co-writes.
That was basically an idea I had had for quite a while, it is called ‘Wood, Steel, Dust & Dreams’ and it is basically all the songs Slaid Cleaves and I wrote over about the twenty-seven years we’ve been writing together. There is a great body of work there, and to be honest, a large part of it is the best part of my body of work, and a lot of it is part of his best body of work, and there seems to be something about the combination of us as writers and we keep thinking it’s going to end soon but we always manage to come up with something else, haha.
Did ‘Wood, Steel, Dust & Dreams’ influence ‘Paper Hearts and Broken Arrows’ in any way?
No, not really. I had to sort of figure out ways to make a living during the pandemic because overnight my entire 50 dates I had booked had gone, and of course, there weren’t any more shows booked the next year, so I had to work out a way to make a living. I came up with these different ideas, and I put together the album of co-writes, and some of the arrangements were similar to the originals, and others were very different. I have a very small audience and I have a rumour of a career, haha, but they are just so incredibly supportive. I printed up a 1,000 copies of that album because, as you know, with the manufacturing there are breakpoints and I’d already sold about 450 copies before I made the record, so it wasn’t worth printing 500 copies, and I think I’ve got like 60 left.
So people have been very supportive, and I also did these very bespoke recordings. People would send me their ten favourite songs with sometimes a cover, and I would sit down and record the album even if people asked for more songs because it was no skin off my back. I would record it all in one go, and if I messed up I would just start again, and you got whatever happened during that time I was recording. Sometimes I would talk to the people with stories about the songs, and if I knew them personally I would ask about their kids or how things were generally. Some of them were like a straight run-through of ten songs, and some of them were very entertaining because I did them at my father’s house way up in the woods at Maine. My father doesn’t really get what I do and he was prone to start the chain saw up right outside the window when I was recording, or he would come through the door with a beer at ten in the morning, haha.
You were obviously responding to an economic need, but did you learn anything about yourself as an artist?
I did learn something, and that is recording can really be fun if you allow it to be, and they were really unique because they were all just one long track, you had to listen to the whole thing, and so they were very unusual pieces of work. I think I’ve finally learnt how to have fun recording after all these years, and how to focus when it is time to really focus. Relax, just relax between takes. I also learnt how loyal my listeners are, they really kept me going because without those two projects I would be working at the hardware store, haha.
What was it like when it was time to record ‘Paper Hearts and Broken Arrows’?
I’m very comfortable with the producer, Neilson Hubbard, and he is a real artist and you get the real sense of that. I suppose it is like that thing that John Lennon said years ago which was something like Nilsson is the kind of guy you could give a crayon and a block of cement to, and he will make something out of it because he is an artist. Neilson Hubbard is beautiful, and I like working with people like that. We had a wonderful moment in the studio when we were doing a song called ‘Valentine’s Day’ and we recorded it with the band, and it sounded great but it sounded too slick if you know what I mean, almost too perfect. My vocal was really good, and we were listening down to it and I could see all the players, the guys, weren’t excited they weren’t enjoying the feeling of listening back to the song. I said to Neilson, “You know what we have here, we have an Eagles’ song where the guy can’t sing.”, haha. It kind of sounds too slick. I just picked up my guitar and played it quiet and kind of rattley, more like it was coming from inside my head, and it came out great. It is a small song, it is not an important song on the record, but it is quite touching if you allow yourself to go in there. That is what I love about working with Neilson, he will screw things up to make them better, haha.
Neilson Hubbard is a busy guy these days.
He certainly is. We filmed the first half of a video yesterday, and he is working all this week so we are going to pick it up again at the weekend and film the rest of it. He does a lot of film stuff now, stuff with Lucinda Williams, and of course, he did a lot of work with John Prine. He has kind of worked his way up with this videography job, and he is moving more towards that than producing records.
In terms of ‘Paper Hearts and Broken Arrows’, how much is Rod Picott, and how much is Neilson Hubbard?
It is definitely a partnership, we work things through and I brought in twenty-five songs I think, and I wanted this album to be really lean. It is me sort of guiding, and him making it happen. We picked through the songs and said this song is covering a similar area to this one, but it is the stronger song so we will just push that one aside. It worked kind of seamlessly, and I used to work with a producer called David Henry, and David was a very different guy to Neilson’s personality, but we seemed to agree on almost everything like this is a better take than that, and what have you. I’ve been very lucky that way because a lot of people really struggle to find the right producer because they can have a very heavy hand. If you listen to Emmylou Harris’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ album it sounds nothing like Emmylou, I mean I love the record but it is an Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois record. I’ve been very lucky and I’ve worked with guys who wanted to get on tape, onto the computer, what I wanted, they have been very accommodating because usually when there is a disagreement, I’m usually wrong, haha. Except for ‘Valentine’s Day’ of course, haha.
You are quite away into your career now, what makes you want to keep going?
That is another fantastic question. It is hard, and I’ve said this before to friends in private, for the first third of my life becoming an adult, working at construction and working very hard, and to turn that corner and make myself a singer-songwriter which is what I have always wanted, was very hard because I had little natural talent, and it was a long haul for me. It took me a long time to find my voice and understand how it worked, I was not a natural guitar player. I then spent the second third of my life being the person I had worked so hard to become. Here I am about to become 58, which isn’t old, but I am staring down the barrel of the last third of my life, and I am thinking about how I want to spend it, do I actually want to spend my last third doing this thing I’ve been doing for 22 years. It is a good question, it is like the balance of scales, you know, you have the show which is very weighty and is a wonderful experience, it is just the best part of it getting on stage for people who are engaged.
Then you have all the other stuff you have to do to do to make it happen that is not a lot of fun, the driving, the traveling, the flights, the booking, the trying to find something decent to eat, the trying to stay out of the worst hotels, the drive back from the gig after a great gig because 40 minutes later you are back by yourself, haha. You are all wired up and there is nobody to share that experience with and those scales they start to tip in the other direction, you know. It does become harder, I’ve got some injuries from working construction so driving long distances is quite hard on me, and I’m also getting older, I have arthritis in my hand so finger-picking takes a while to warm up. So while I will never quit, I will always play, I don’t know if I have the strength to be a 200 gig a year guy going into my sixties, so I may be more picky and just play the good shows, haha.
Your voice, as everyone’s does, changes with age. Has this influenced your songwriting?
It does. When I made the first record I was singing quite a bit higher than I am now, and I was singing slightly out of my range, I think, but you are always learning. Five, or maybe ten, years ago I had a short conversation with Jason Isbell who came to a show I was playing with Amanda Shires who he was dating at the time, and he said I had a nice voice, a nice baritone, and my head sort of turned I was like, I’m a baritone, haha. That is the problem, I’m not a tenor, haha. I can’t sing ‘Born In The USA’ in the same key as Bruce, haha, I’m a baritone I need to be down there with John Prine. I sort of started changing the keys of the songs, and it was very funny that one simple statement made the difference, but nobody had ever told me that. I do write around that, the limitations of your voice and writing to its strengths and idiosyncrasies, and sometimes that is the best of what you do, all those idiosyncrasies.
I think the vocals on ‘Paper Hearts and Broken Dreams’ are the best vocals I’ve done, and it is hard to say why but because I’m singing lower I’m able to sing out a little bit more. I don’t mean harder, but I’m able to hold notes longer, it is not a struggle, I’m not fighting with it. You can hear that on the first few records, even though I’m proud of those records, you can hear me fighting with my voice a little bit, trying to hit that note and tensing. So yes, I do write to my voice a lot more, I used to think well, Steve Earle can do it here, why can’t I, haha. My voice has changed a lot, but some people’s voices don’t change that much, there is a wide range there but most singers do change. John Prine is a perfect example, on those first few records he has the nasally, whiney, nasal voice, and on his later records he has the beautiful loose gravel sound, sometimes he doesn’t even hit the note, haha.
What made a New England lad want to be a songwriter?
I don’t know, it is the only thing I ever wanted to do, it is the only thing that ever came into my head that I said that’s it. It is hard to explain, and I don’t want to over-exaggerate, but I grew up in a place where it was very difficult to express yourself and be different from everybody else, it was dangerous to do that so I was a very frustrated kid. I think when I started seeing songwriters writing about things I recognised, on the poetic side people like say Jackson Browne, and on the more prosaic end of things, Springsteen, Petty, and even some of The Kinks’ stuff. When I started hearing people write songs about what they had actually experienced I was like ah-ha, you can do it that way. I was a huge Zeppelin fan when I was a kid, and their stuff was very esoteric lyrically, I mean I didn’t even know what a hedgerow was, haha. That was sort of the awakening when I discovered singer-songwriters that were writing about people, and Springsteen was really big for me because I knew those guys, those characters on ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ specifically, ‘Born To Run’ was more romantic, but ‘Racing In The Streets’ I know these guys, I know that Barracuda, I know that Chevelle SS.
So it was a big awakening that you could write in that way and express yourself in that way, I wasn’t any good at it but it was like a magnetic force drawing me to it. Once I learnt a few chords on the guitar, I couldn’t not do it, I just wrote all the time but don’t think I wrote a decent song until I was 35 years old. It is also romantic as well when you are a kid, a dance with a beautiful young girl doesn’t come close to what it feels like to strap on a fender guitar and plug it into the amp, that electric click, and then hit that chord. There is nothing like it, in that instance, you become a different thing, the minute you put on that guitar and plug it in you become something different from what you were just seconds before, and it is just beautiful. It is great therapy for anybody, even if you don’t play guitar, just get one and someone to tune it and show you a chord, and amp it up and just hit that chord. Change your life, haha.
You have also written some poetry and short stories, is that an extension to your songwriting or is it something separate?
No, I think it is an extension. I started writing poetry just for fun, and I immediately found it was sort of like taking the handcuffs off songwriting because songwriting has these very strict rules that you can break, but you have to know them to break them wisely. You have meter, syllable count, rhyme scheme, and you’ve got progressions and the rhythm of the lyric, and all these things you have to be aware of when writing a song. With poetry, you are just free, the cuffs come off and I just enjoy it as entertainment for myself, the different form of expression. I was incredibly lucky to get published and the first two books were published by a small company called Mexcalita Press out of Norman, Oklahoma. It is run by this great poet Nathan Brown, I’m not really sure why he wants to hang around with me but I passed the test, haha.
Then I started moving away from writing poetry to short stories, and that was an extension of songwriting as well. You are able to use all that stuff from songwriting because when you write a song there is a lot of excess because you keep weeding stuff out and thinning it, and with short stories you don’t have to do that, you can leave all your favourite little bits in, those beautiful sentences, instead of subtracting. For a song you want everything to be really lean, and so it allows more subtext which is really fun to play with, to try and say more with the story than the language you are using, which is something I think all great language does, something gets revealed, the reader or the listener understands more than the words that you are using. Now I’m moving into more long-form fiction it is a lot more daunting, but I have three books ready for editing, I need to finish the third one, and fingers crossed I will find a publisher for those. In my later years that may be where I end up headed. So if anybody is out there looking for an author who writes dark depressing working-class stories I’m your guy, haha.
What can UK audiences expect on your tour?
We are still in this COVID thing, so in terms of the audiences it is going to be a roll of the dice and some shows will sell well, while others won’t, and I know that going in. I love playing in England, I feel a deep connection, it is where my best audiences are, and by best I mean they really listen. They really bear down and ask questions about the songs after the show. I feel quite comfortable in those venues. Another thing I found that was interesting was that I made a setlist for the UK tour, you know, these are the songs to play and ten of them are from the new record. Now that is very rare because once you have played the songs from a new record live you find maybe three or four that work, but for some reason, these particular songs from the new album, and I did a short tour a few weeks ago, they really sing live, they just come alive and they feel very in the moment. They feel important in a way, and I will be doing some of the favourites because I know people will be showing up to hear certain songs. I’m not that guy who says you want to hear it so I’m not playing it, haha. I don’t want to overstate it, but it is an enormous honour for someone to put down their £12, and if they ask for a specific song and I can do it, then I will gladly do it. It is a wonderful thing and a huge compliment, it means you have touched them in some way.
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?
The last time I had a long drive I dug out Lucinda Williams’ ‘Essence’ record. ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’ is probably my favourite Lucinda Williams record but ‘Essence’ has a sound and a mood to it that is really beautiful. I don’t know, there is almost something erotic or sensual to me about the record. I’ve been listening to Jason Isbell’s ‘The Nashville Sound’, can you remember how beautiful LPs were when you were so connected to the music, and now it goes in the thumb drive and that’s it, haha. John Prine’s ‘Souvenirs’ is always on rotation. I’m trying to think of a new artist, there is a young woman called Rachel Baiman who is quite good, she did a lovely version of a song I wrote with Slaid Cleves called ‘Rust Belt Fields’ which is the only reason I know of her. I think she should get a shoutout because her record company is the only company who have paid the proper royalties, haha. At this level when you talk to the lawyer he is like it is going to cost you more to hire me than the royalties you are going to get from the record, haha. Welcome to the music business, wackety smackety do, it is a very tough business, the record business.
I go to songwriting workshops sometimes, and that is great when you get into a room with people who have talent and you can help them put the pieces together, and I try and make it less of a mystery. One of the things I always say in there is don’t do it unless you want to do it because it is a really difficult world, and you can be incredibly talented but spend the rest of your life in the basement. As an artist you see people pass you by who are maybe less talented but they are more charismatic, and that can be a painful thing. A lot of people wouldn’t say that, but I’m saying it honestly. Then you also make friends with musicians who are more talented than you but they just can’t get any purchase on the thing because of their personality, or they are shy, or they just don’t make those magic connections that help you move forward. It is a very tricky business. You see it all the time, you will see people on TV and it is like, how did that happen, haha. Then there is someone like John Moreland who is an incredible singer, a great, great songwriter and you are how isn’t he playing to 3,000 – 4,000 people. I know he is doing fine, he has a great career, but to me, he should be playing to 3,000 – 4,000 halls, but for whatever reason, sometimes you just level off but you stay in the business.
Success isn’t always everything, sometimes it can lead to personal challenges.
Absolutely. I’m very happy in the place where I landed. Everybody in life wants more of the good stuff that is part of your life, I want more people in the room but that doesn’t happen at my shows, my shows are small, but they are very, very personal. I’m happy and grateful for what I’ve been able to achieve because I worked very, very hard to carve out this little piece of land, and I’m not about to give it up, haha. Like David Olney used to say, “There are not a lot of people who like what I do, but if you like what I do you’ve got to come to me.”, haha.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?
I’m looking forward to the tour, I’ve got my voice in shape, and there are another couple of videos coming down the line and I’m very, very proud of this record which has got probably the best reviews I have ever had. Reviewers have been very kind to me over the years, despite my lack of slickness and the fact I’m rough around the edges. You have to be who you are, if you are a gazelle be a gazelle if you are a tiger be a tiger, I learnt that a long time ago. It doesn’t feel good to be something that you’re not. I’m just looking forward to playing again, I think I’ve played just eight shows in the last two years. I hope people do whatever they want to do to feel secure, if they want to mask up that’s fine, sit in the corner if they want to keep away from people, I just hope people come out and I’m ready to do a great show.