From Paul Brady to The Clancy Brothers Irish folk music is a very obvious influence.
Trapper Schoepp is over ten years into his career which got a boost in 2019 when he gained a co-write for finishing Bob Dylan’s ‘On, Wisconsin’. He has released a new album, ‘Siren Songs’, which he recorded with the Jayhawks’ John Jackson and Wilco’s Patrick Sansone at Cash Cabin, Johnny Cash’s old studio in Hendersonville, Tennesse, which shows a strong influence of Irish folk music. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Trapper Schoepp over Zoom as he was resting from his recent tour of the UK supporting Jesse Malin. He explains that it was during the pandemic that he really got into Irish folk music by initially catching Paul Brady on YouTube. He shares the sense of history he felt at recording at Cash Cabin, and how it helped him dig deeper into his own folk influences. Bob Dylan has loomed large in his career, and he gives the lowdown on his ‘On, Wisconsin’ co-write and tells us that it was hearing Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’ that made him want to become a singer-songwriter in the first place. Finally, he confirms that he is a folk artist and explains what he thinks constitutes folk music in the 2020s.
How are you?
I’m good, I’ve just been to the UK doing a tour with Jesse Malin and it was an enjoyable tour, the crowds listen more in the UK than in the US. They are a bit more quiet, more attentive, and respectful of the artist, there is no one doing shots at the bar and blabbering about stuff. I enjoyed it, I love touring in the UK. Jesse was amped up, he’s in his ‘50s but that boy can rock’n’roll like he is in his ‘20s.
Reading your publicity the term folk is used to describe your music, is this how you see yourself?
Yes of course, folk in many ways is the music of the people, it is a way to tell stories, it is a way to communicate how you feel about the real world, from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan, to Jeff Tweedy and back, I think there is such a rich line of songwriters who might call themselves folk. To me, just being a little link in that long chain is what I’m after.
How did you get a co-write with Bob Dylan for ‘On, Wisconsin’, and how did it feel?
When Bob Dylan was twenty years old he was living in Wisconsin for a very brief time, and he saw Pete Seeger in the flesh play, and he was in the University Union one night, and there were these guys looking for someone to share driving duties to New York City. Bob took the ride to New York, he immersed himself in the Greenwich Village folk scene and got a deal with Columbia Records, and on the day he went into the recording studio to begin work on that album, he wrote a song about Wisconsin with three verses. It didn’t make it onto the album, and fifty-seven years later the two sheets of lyrics were auctioned off, and I didn’t have $30,000 lying around so I finished the song off instead. Public radio took notice, Billboard took notice, and then Bob Dylan’s lawyers took notice in the best way possible. I was at the grocery store and I got this ding on my phone and a message saying Bob Dylan has agreed to the joint publishing of ‘On, Wisconsin’ with Trapper Schoepps, which was a nice little thing to get.
You recorded ‘Siren Songs’ at Johnny Cash’s Cash Cabin and carry this through to the cover art. How important is Johnny Cash to you as an artist?
I grew up making mix tapes of Johnny Cash for my grandpa, and I think some of the songs he recorded at The Cabin are some of my favourite ones growing up. The obvious ones are ‘Hurt’, ‘The Man Comes Around’ and his cover of Sting’s ‘I Hung My Head’, I think he offers such a rich presentation of the American songbook in those later albums. I think it did have an impact on me growing up listening to those albums, and like every teenage boy, I saw ‘Walk The Line’, and thought Johnny Cash was the coolest dude in the world. I’m not a super fanboy, and I think that’s what made the experience of recording there very fulfilling and beautiful, but not nerve-racking. It was very surreal to be in the midst of June Carter Cash’s piano, Johnny Cash’s rocking chair, that he carved his initials into, and his 1930s Martin guitar, and I could just go on and on. I am definitely a fan, but not a freak of his work, which is what made it a nice easy experience.
You worked with John Jackson and Patrick Sansone on ‘Siren Songs’?
I’ve known John Jackson since 2013, we were both playing at this open jam in New York City, and I just got friendly with him over the years, and he is in the Jayhawks who I’ve toured with a bit. It was wildly serendipitous that I would write all these acoustic songs at this time when John Jackson wanted to make an album with me, and it just so happened that he’d been making some albums at Johnny Cash’s Cabin in the past, helping artists like Loretta Lynn and others, and we thought it would be the perfect space to capture these acoustic songs
How did you record ‘Siren Songs’?
I really got into Irish folk music during the pandemic, and I was up late one night and I saw this guy, Paul Brady, singing the song ‘Arthur McBride’, and I swear I watched the video like five times in a row and I just watched how his fingers went up and down the neck of his guitar. I would hit pause to see what shapes he was doing, and the whole album was inspired by watching that video because I was so moved by it. That led to a bit of an obsession with Irish music, everything from The Pogues to Sinéad O’Connor, The Dubliners to Luke Kelly, The Chieftains, Clancy Brothers and on and on. I really got into that kind of music, and the Cash space is really steeped in that old folk, blues, and country world that Celtic and Irish music is a close relative of. It felt just right to go down there and record live with the musicians, and skip the click track, and just try and capture something that felt real like the way old folk music was made.
Was recording live thrilling, or was it a bit nerve-racking?
Initially, it was a bit nerve-racking because I grew up in the age of Pro Tools, where you can have a million takes on everything, and the album was recorded live but there were overdubs. The nuts and bolts of the album were done live, and what is crazy is that a lot of the tracks were the fourth or fifth take and I think there is a lot of magic when a group of musicians are just figuring it out. There is a certain energy in that, which you just can’t find in an over-cooked Pro Tools session, when musicians are just playing for their lives. I think it was really special to do it that way because of the space we were in and the kind of music we were playing, which is folk music.
How did you decide when a track was finished?
I will say that time and money can be motivating factors, we had fourteen songs in seven days and it is a matter of finishing everything in those days, so we had two songs a day which is a lot, especially when most of the musicians don’t know the material but they are pros. Knowing that you are on the clock can be very inspiring because you are like, that is what it is we have to move on, whereas when you are doing something completely piecemeal on Pro Tools you can have an analyst’s amount of ways to tweak things. We were using Pro Tools and we did do plenty of overdubs, don’t get me wrong, but the core of the album was done live.
What inspired ‘Cliffs Of Dover’, the lead single from the album?
I don’t know about you, but I’m just sick and tired of living in a world that is just about war. I grew up in the post 9/11 world of the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq. The guy to first take me fishing died in that war and what we were fighting for I’m not really sure, it doesn’t seem to add up and we lost a lot of lives in that war. And now those wars are over, it seems we are packing our bags for another war, and it is really frustrating, and so many veterans who come home are not living a good life because they are mentally and physically tormented. They are living will all sorts of PTSD, and I wrote that song based on first-hand experiences I heard about PTSD, but I think many people can relate to those feelings in their own way. So that is how that song came to be.
Your latest single ‘Secrets Of The Breeze’ has an obvious Irish influence.
You are damn right it does. Just listening to a lot of Clancy Brothers will put your mind there, and Patrick Sansone the producer, is pretty Irish himself, he has got it in him, and we got to work with Jim Hoke who has played with everyone from Paul McCartney to Dolly Parton, and he is a wizard of the tin whistle. So that was pretty cool, we got to work with our own Irish orchestra, tin whistle and accordion going on some of those tracks, it was really nice.
Did you decide to release it as a single or was it somebody else?
I’ve not sure, but I like the song and we had a good idea for the music video where we were all dancing with the Irish Dance School of Milwaukee and I was proud of that.
How do you approach your songwriting, is it lyrics or melody first?
Each song is sort of its own patchwork quilt of musical ideas, influences and lyrics, it all comes together at different points. Sometimes it is a slow burn like ‘The Devil’s Kettle’, I started that song in 2013 when I visited The Devil’s Kettle in Minnesota on Highway 61, and it took ten years for that thing to cook. I eventually found a riff which went perfectly with what I had already written, so it might take ten years to write, and ‘On, Wisconsin’ took fifty-seven years to write with Bob Dylan. Some songs come in fifty-seven minutes, and some songs come in fifty-seven years, but that is part of the beauty of folk music in that typically it is not this laboured over, Pro Tools digital machine of a song, it is something real and organic patchworked together over minutes or years depending on what’s happening.
How important is Wisconsin to your music?
I think a sense of place is important in folk music, you have Woody Guthrie’s “I was standing down in New York town one day”, you have this rich history in folk music of telling a story about where you are. I think a sense of place is important, I love Wisconsin, but I often leave Wisconsin to go tour the world, and I’m a citizen of the world because I get to tour and play everywhere. It is important because I live here, but it is tough to say because if I lived in Austin, Texas, would I be singing about Austin, Texas, it is hard to know how important it is in a way if that makes sense.
What is your take on the current local politics of Wisconsin, which is a swing state I believe?
We’ve actually just elected a new Supreme Court leader who will hopefully not push 1800s laws on women here. So yes, I think our state motto is ‘On, Wisconsin’ and subscribes to progressive ideals. So right now I hope things are heading in the right direction, and not back to the 1800s.
There has always been a political aspect to folk music, do feel engaged with that heritage?
I do, if you’ve got something to say use whatever means are necessary. I don’t see myself as a protest singer, but I’ve written songs about sexual violence per se, anti-war songs such as ‘Cliffs Of Dover’. So, I definitely touch on social commentary in my music but I don’t define myself in that way. Billy Bragg is very, very political, but I tend not to like taking sides because I don’t think either side is doing a very good job in America at the moment, or anywhere. You guys have had a whole mess of issues over there, Trump ain’t the only world problem.
Who or what made you want to become a singer-songwriter?
The A minor chord to the F in the song ‘Hurricane’ by Bob Dylan. I had a bad back and I was sitting in my parent’s basement and I heard this song ‘Hurricane’, and it was a man singing with so much conviction, such a great sense of conviction, about a man wrongly accused, and I thought, you know, that guy doesn’t have the voice my choir teacher has been telling me to sing like, and he’s from around here. I thought that was cool, someone who was from not far from where I grew up was singing this great cool song, I thought that was really wild. I think Bob Dylan was a huge part of that, for sure.
Do you have any plans for the rest of 2023 and into 2024?
I’m trying to get back to the UK and Europe, and I will continue to tour America and generally get up to no good.
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 will try and keep this more modern. So, Jess Williamson’s ‘Pictures Of Flowers’, there is an artist called Joan Shelley and her ‘The Push and Pull’, and then totally unrelated ‘Lost and Found’ by the Kinks, I’ve been really into that recently. As far as albums go, anything by The Clancy Brothers has been hitting me for a few years. Their songs, ‘The Parting Glass’, ‘The Patriot Game’, and ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye’, their songs have so much intensity, they are so real and tangible, and the way those guys are singing together is so beautiful. I wish there was more music like that today. There is a guy called Willi Carlisle who is coming to the UK, he is like a one-man tent revival act and he tells stories, plays the banjo and the violin and the whole thing. So check him out.
Trapper Schoepp’s ‘Siren Songs’ is out now on Rootsy Music.