Americana UK described Rod Picott, some years back, as, “the best of the current crop of Americana singer-songwriters.” Over the course of eight albums the one time sheet rock hanger (that’s plasterboard on this side of the water) has consistently proved us right while his live appearances are always eagerly anticipated. Good news then that he’s just announced that he’s returning to the UK for a set of dates in March of next year in support of his latest album, Out Past The Wires, which will be released to coincide with the dates. A double disc release (on CD and vinyl), Out Past The Wires will have 22 songs ranging from whispery ballads to guitar driven rockers and every musical spot between and was funded via Kickstarter with Picott’s target met within days of its announcement. Just as the Kickstarter campaign kicked off Americana UK spoke to Rod about the album, his budding career as an author and poet and his working relationship with his buddy, Slaid Cleaves.
Hi there, thanks for talking to us. First off can you tell us about the album?
The album will be a double CD but for the first time I’m also doing vinyl so it will be a proper double vinyl album. I wrote a lot over the last year and a half and I just had so many songs, I think around 78 songs or pieces of song and I whittled it down as far as I could but I was also thinking of just doing something a little bit different, a little more expansive. So many acts these days are going in the opposite direction releasing singles on iTunes or Spotify so it’s the iconoclast in me wanting to push in the opposite direction.
Of the 78 I was able to whittle it down to 32 songs that I felt good about but I thought, “Oh, that’s just too many” so eventually I cut it down to 22 and decided to make a double album but the other ten songs will accompany the album like an extra disc or something of demos and outtakes, a kind of bonus disc to go along with Out past The Wires. I’ve had a really great time putting it together. I finally got smart and gave myself enough time to do it properly so I’m not rushing around. We’re just finishing off the artwork right now and then it goes off to the manufacturers so I’m hoping to have something in my hand towards the end of September. The album won’t be out until early next year so that gives me plenty of time to work with publicists on the release and I’m also hoping to tie it in with the release of a book of short stories that has been picked up as well so it’s been a big project.
You’ve got Neilson Hubbard back in the producer’s seat I believe.
That’s right. He did Fortune but we’re doing this new one in a slightly different way because it’s so long. It was difficult for him to keep track of everything. On Fortune we did everything live with everyone playing in the studio at the same time but on this one we recorded my pieces first getting the guitar and vocals right and then we brought the band in to play to those. It meant we didn’t have any possibility of me getting the vocals wrong and having to start again. I mean when you record live it’s a beautiful thing, the instinctive interaction is great but if you fluff a line then you have to go back to the beginning so we made sure my stuff was all done nice and tight so that the band would be backing my singing at its very best.
You mentioned a book to accompany the album.
Well it’s like the character songs that I’ve done, the narratives that are on the record, those characters move over into the stories and I kind of expand on them and some of them are written from different perspectives. I’m using the titles of the songs for the stories as well so there is a kind of match. I feel really good about it and I don’t know what the response will be but I’ve really enjoyed it.
Well, Willy Vlautin has been quite successful and even Steve Earle had a shot at a book of short stories. I’m sure at the very least your fans will want to read it.
I don’t have a huge fan base but they’re very loyal and it will be good to start off with that, a kind of leg up into the world of books.
There’s a quote about you being like Raymond Carver in song.
Yeah, that was from The Houston Chronicle, the writer has always given me good reviews and he’s been really supportive. I mean you make a record , you follow your instincts, that feeling that runs up your spine and just try to do your best and then you send it out there and see what people think and I’ve been very fortunate as my records for the most part have gotten really good reviews over the years. I think that in terms of someone like Raymond Carver I try to cut it down to as few words as possible. Economy of language is one of the most beautiful things about writing even though there are so many ways to go about it. I mean you read a Cormac McCarthy book and you think, “My God, this sentence goes on for a page and a half” but it’s stunning and as a writer I think that you have to be the animal that you are and to me a lot of the beauty is in economy, how can you say the most with the fewest words, you know.
I noticed that another writer you admire is Donald Ray Pollock.
Yes, I don’t think that there’s anyone around right now who writes violence as beautifully as Pollock. It’s a dark world and wow, it’s not for everybody, is it? I mentioned him on Facebook and a couple of people said they would check it out. That’s one of the good things about social media, I love doing these little posts about something I’ve found, films, books, other people’s songs and I wish more people would do that. I think we should talk about things we love and share them. It lets people know something about you, I mean if I mention Donald Ray Pollock and someone then goes to read him then they know something about me because I’ve read the book and liked it
You’ve also just published a book of poetry
I’ve got a lot of irons in a lot of fires. The poetry book is called God In His Slippers and it’s doing just fine. You know the poetry world is so small, like the Star Wars equivalent in poetry will only sell about six thousand copies so it’s mainly a labour of love and certainly not a way to make a lot of money.
Most people probably think of you as a “blue collar” songwriter, thinking of your background in construction along with songs such as Welding Burns and Rust Belt Field but there’s also a dark sense of humour in several of the songs. You even describe your shows as a “circus of misery and heartbreak.” Is the humour important?
Well I worked for years as a sheet rock hanger, 18 years, and even after I made the first record and was touring I still wasn’t able to make a living doing that so I would go back to the sheet rock to make ends meet, it was a couple of years before I was able to build up the music and tours to be able to live off of that. It was a long road. But there’s more humour in my show than you might expect from listening to the records. I used that line because it gives you a sense that there’s some dark humour running through the thing. It gives some balance, if you’ve got too much dark stuff and it’s too weighty I think it can feel a bit oppressive so I talk a lot during the show and I tell stories and kind of try to flesh out the full picture of what it is I’m trying to do. It’s an important part of it for me and I love humour especially dark humour.
I recall that you did some Youtube videos a while back playing the part of some hick film reviewer.
I sort of invented this character that comes from the same part of the country that I come from but a bit more rural. He’s a kind of out in the woods sort of guy and he has a television show where he does movie reviews. His name is Elmer Pelke and he misunderstands what the movies are about. He’s a little bit based on my father who is quite a character, he gets things sideways and backwards. Elmer has no understanding of pop culture and doesn’t know how to relate to it and that’s where the humour came in. I might do another one this year as I’ve got some time off.
Your pal, Slaid Cleaves, toured over here recently. Can you tell us something about your working partnership with him?
Slaid and I have been writing songs together for over 50 years now. It started with a song called Wrecking Ball that was a fictionalized song written about a guy we went to high school with. He was probably the toughest guy we knew. He got into a lot of fights and was bit of a threat whenever you ran into him. I think we’ve written roughly 20 or so songs together over the years and we’ve both recorded nearly all of them which is telling in its own way. Slaid is very dedicated to the idea of the reveal in a song – that something should be revealed about the nature of the character or even yourself if you are the narrator. Exposition is important to him. It’s less important to me. I don’t mind a song that is just sort of a character sketch. That doesn’t mean it’s not important to me but when we write together I always notice that he’s very good and being vigilant about that element. I’m more the guy who says, “Wait this guy is from Michigan so he wouldn’t say it like that, he’d say it like this.” It’s a bit like acting I suppose in a way. I love watching actors like Ben Affleck or even Mark Wahlberg (who grew up quite near to where Slaid and I both grew up) when they get to sink into a role where the character comes from the place they grew up. Along with Matt Damon as well they absolutely nail those characters, how they think, the unspoken motivation, the subtext. This is partly what Slaid and I are trying to do when we write – expose the inner world or motivation or mind set of a character but without telling you outright. When you are able to that successfully in a song it is a wonderful thing. It’s such a great feeling. It’s a real trick, like building a skyscraper with twigs. My favourite songs work exactly that way. Actually most of my favourite writing in any form works that way. Read the first four lines of John Prine’s “Unwed Fathers”. He gives you the entire story in 4 lines. It’s a stunning piece of writing. I would say that if you took away all I’ve learned, uncovered and discovered by writing (we do a LOT of talking and analyzing when we write together) with Slaid I would not be much of a songwriter, it’s been an incredibly fruitful partnership. Not all, but most of the best songs I’ve written are the co-writes with Slaid. He has an amazing mind though I did have to talk him out of using the word “spaghetti” once which was pretty amusing. I think another subtle thing that has helped the co-writes to be such strong songs is that we don’t pull any punches when we write. We don’t candy ass around when we write. We go at it like jackals. We work very very hard on some of the songs. Two of the songs on Slaid’s new album – Primer Gray and Take Home Pay (which is also on my new album) were worked on for nearly two years as I remember. It is pretty seamless. I don’t even remember who wrote what on most of the songs. We don’t worry about credit so much and who wrote what or who came up with the best lines. We just tear into a song and keep hammering until we feel like we’ve exhausted our best efforts.
Rod Picott tours the UK next March, all dates are here. You can see him in his alter ego of Elmer Pelke here (and you really should watch it and check out the guys dipping the chips in the background). Meanwhile there’s fascinating film of Rod reading his poetry and being interviewed by Will Kimbrough here.