American Roots Sessions Interview: Joshua Black Wilkins
American Roots Sessions interview with Joshua Black Wilkins
If there are any universal truths left concerning the music industry in 2014, they can probably be boiled down to the following: ‘the album’ as we know it is dead, modern rock radio is essentially nonexistent, and country rules. Indeed, from The Voice to American Idol to the Billboard Top 40 album charts to primetime television on Wednesday nights, it’s tough to swing the proverbial dead cat without seeing Nashville’s influence pop up in some fashion. Yet the sheer abundance of mainstream music generating from The Music City seems inversely proportional to the authenticity of much of what passes for “country music” today. Recent years on Music Row have spawned an increasingly watered-down, comically formulaic sound that pales in comparison to the country music of even two decades ago, which itself was a tame, ‘for the masses’ version of what came before.
Slowly but surely, however, a backlash has been growing. Spawned at least in part by renewed interest crossover artists from the country, folk punk and Americana genres, a more authentic, inspired brand of music has shown signs of life. Enter East Nashville, Tennesee’s Joshua Black Wilkins.
Already a noted photographer who’s worked with the likes of Willie Nelson, The Black Keys, ZZ Top, Alabama Shakes and American Roots Session favorite Cory Branan, Wilkins has slowly-but-steadily been making a name for himself as an alt-country artist to be reckoned with. Wilkins’ latest full-length, Settling The Dust, finds him not only filling out the sound he damn-near perfected on his last offering, 2012’s Fair Weather, but firing on all cylinders in the process. With a trademark baritone that’s been favorably likened to a mash-up of an early Eddie Vedder and a late Tom Waits, Wilkins is able to wander the territory between vulnerability and downright badassery.
We caught up with Wilkins fresh on the heels of the first few shows of his solo tour in support of Settling The Dust. We spoke of the album’s crowd-funded roots, his past tours with some heavy hitting bands from the punk rock game, and the stereotypical image and sound of his hometown compared to the genuine art being produced in The Music City. The result was an honest, introspective look at both his own work and the state of Nashville as we know it. Enjoy!
American Roots Sessions (Jason Stone): Settling The Dust features a sound that, like I said above, is familiar for followers of your work. But there are a few songs (“Trouble We’ve Made,” “I Wasn’t The One,” “Settling The Dust” perhaps most notably) that have a bit more of a “traditional country” sound than most of Fair Weather. Was that a conscious change of direction, or is that maybe an ongoing progression in sound?
Joshua Black Wilkins: I’ve never wanted to make the same record twice, and I have loved country music arrangements for a long time. Pedal steel guitar is one of my favorite sounds, and I rarely get to use it on records or on stage, so when I had the chance to use Paul Niehaus (Calexico, Iron & Wine, Justin Townes Earle, etc) on steel, it helped me figure out what kind of record I COULD make.
Fair Weather was a project that let me record all the instruments myself (other than cello), and I enjoyed it, but with Settling The Dust, I wanted a band sound again, and I wanted to be able to just focus on the songs and singing, and let real musicians do the arrangements for their instruments. It really does sound the way I wanted it to.
Songs like “Trouble We’ve Made” and “I Wasn’t the One” had been worked on while touring solo for a couple years, so they were open to everyone’s ideas. The speed of “Settling The Dust” was figured out just one day before we recorded it, which was the most ideal situation for me. It is easy to over-think the recording process, so we rehearsed one time, and tracked the band in one day. I did vocal and guitar overdubs the following two days.
I’m very influenced by great country records, and I did want to make a record that appealed to people that like that kind of music. These songs didn’t need heavy overdrive and feedback tracks like Fair Weather did.
Reviewers and critics who describe your voice frequently say things like "Eddie Vedder with a dash of Tom Waits." As someone who's a fan of both, is that considered high praise, or does it seem weird to be mentioned in the same sentence?
When I was a teenager, the Eddie Vedder comparison happened a lot. It was the 90’s though, and I DO love Pearl Jam, and have since I was 13. If it was meant as a compliment, I took it well, and if it happened as a criticism, I wouldn’t let it bother me.
The Tom Waits references happened later, and though I DO love Tom Waits, it’s not something I did voluntarily.
I am thrilled that people put some of my records in the “if you like Tom Waits, Pearl Jam, etc, you’d like JBW” references. As long as it’s a compliment, I’ll take what I can get.
You decided to go the kickstarter route as a way to crowd source the production costs of Settling The Dust. You’ve obviously self-produced albums before, but this time was your first time crowd-funding a recording project, right? How was going through that process; I could imagine it being both nerve-wracking and, ultimately, pretty validating, no?
I did a Pledge Music Campaign a few years ago to finish “While You Wait” and help support the WM3 Legal Fund (Westmemphis3.org)
It is very nerve wracking to ask for help, and hope that fans will support something they haven’t heard yet. Thankfully, in the end, it was validating that folks believe in me enough to help fund a new record.
I knew what I wanted to make this time, and I knew that I wanted to be able to put it out on vinyl too, and that all adds up very quickly. For me, it was a great experience!
A lot of your lyrics historically (particularly on Fair Weather and Settling The Dust) deal with relationship issues – hell, the first line on the new album talks about packing your things and hitting the highway. Do you ever get blowback from exes…or, I suppose from a current girlfriend…based on some of those feelings? That’s got to make for awkward conversations…
Over the past many years, I have tried to approach songwriting, and the craft of song writing, differently than I have before. Though I MEAN what I say in songs, they are not always 100% autobiographical. Some of my exes buy my records, some probably don’t, but I can’t take that into consideration when I decide to put a song on a record. I haven’t been in a BAD relationship in over a decade, so the subjects of many of my songs are quite old, and many of the subjects now are observations of other peoples relationships.
Thankfully my current girlfriend doesn’t question my songs, and my last relationship never produced any songs, so I have found that I write about people that I know, or very old feelings that I have decided to keep close for writing purposes.
I don’t talk about the subjects of my songs, and rarely name names. But as a correction, Late Night Talks is ACTUALLY about being on the road, touring, and feeling very isolated from friends and loved ones, past and present. It was originally recorded for The Girlfriend Sessions.
Continuing on that theme; you deal with a lot of negative experiences and dark tones in your songwriting. I think it was Jason Isbell who recently tweeted something the songwriting process as forcing himself to spend time every days recalling what life was like when everything sucked. Why do you think that you find darker, what some would call ‘depressing,’ themes easier to write about?
I’ve never been inspired to write when I am happy. I also don’t find much inspiration in other peoples’ happy songs. I know people like “love songs”, but happy ones are easy. They don’t have to be good. They are simple and temporary, trivial and written for the simple minded.
Not everyone is happy, and not everyone has amazing relationships; but everyone can relate to shitty relationships, and they are, for me, a lot easier to write about.
I am a calm and non-violent person, so I have an ability to store up emotions for long periods of time and bring them out later in songs. Sometimes it takes years or decades.
You’ve obviously made a name for yourself as a photographer who specializes in non-digital work, technology from a somewhat bygone era. Are your music-making preferences the same? Analog and vinyl and vintage instruments?
I love working with limitations in general. I use a digital camera commercially more than I use film now, because that is ultimately what the client wants, but I have always preferred film. I shoot some form of film on all of my jobs, and most of my website is just film/non-digital photography.
I have made records on tape only, and digital only. Though I prefer the sound and limitations that tape has, digital recording has endless possibilities too. Technology has come a LONG way, and it is very possible to make amazing, organic records digitally. As for me, I’d rather record a session on tape in 3 days than nitpick digital files for 12 months.
You spent the Summer of 2013 on the road alongside Blacklist Royals and Teenage Bottlerocket opening up for Face To Face. Was there any trepidation in joining such a tour as a solo, “country” singer-songwriter?
For me, there wasn’t. I had toured with Face To Face the Fall before (Nov 2012) on their acoustic tour, and Trever Keith and I have been friends for a while before that, so I was all about it. I don’t have any organic background in punk music, BUT I do relate to the mentality of punk rock, so I was pretty excited to open for their crowd. Blacklist Royals have been friends of mine for years, and I am a huge fan of what they do.
There were certainly some shows that went off better than others, but overall the crowds seem to dig what I do, and I sold a lot of merch to people that would have never heard me otherwise. I am very grateful to Face To Face for believing in me and wanting me not only on their stage, but in their bus for 2 months.
From what I witnessed at the Philly and Boston dates, that tour brought out a little bit more of the “older punk” crowd, such as myself. Looking back a little over a year ago, what was the overall reception you got from that tour?
It was a great reception overall! Philly was one of my favorite shows of the east coast leg of that tour, and the Boston show sounded great too.
You can’t please everyone, but I don’t remember anyone booing me either! My setlist was constructed very purposefully on that tour to appeal to not only my crowd, but Face To Face’s crowd. Though my vocal chords took a beating, I always felt comfortable on that stage, and in front of that crowd.
While on that tour, you made a note of specifying that you’re from “East Nashville, Tennessee.” For those of us who aren’t from the area, how does East Nashville differ from what’s perhaps the spit-shined version of “Nashville” that gets portrayed on terrible network television dramas and in pop-country songs?
East Nashville, though it’s only a mile or so from Lower Broadway (where the neon and honky tonks are), is a part of town that has be revitalized over the past 15 years. When I moved to (east) Nashville 12 years ago, it was starting to be inhabited by musicians and artists that didn’t fit the Nashville stereotypes everyone else knew. There were only a couple of bars (Slow Bar and Radio Cafe), a coffeeshop (Bongo Java Roasting Company), and one or two restaurants. There was a lot of crime then too, and not a lot of street lights, so there was an element of reality that we took pretty seriously.
The “NASHVILLE” show does a terrible job of showing people what Nashville is actually like, but it is a reality/drama show, so it’s hard to expect anything more. The biggest issue with that show, and it’s impact on my city, is that so many people have moved to Nashville based on their preconceived notion of what they WANT Nashville to be. A lot of money has moved into Nashville and with money is power. In just the past couple of years, Nashville has greatly changed to appeal to the wealthy tourists/transplants that are buying up the dirt and building huge condos/skyscrapers.
So to say that I am from “East Nashville” is a separation from Music Row/downtown and the stereotypes that those places have given the city. I also say that because I have only ever lived in the East Nashville neighborhood as long as I’ve lived in Tennessee, and I was there when it was a lot rougher than it is now.
As a follow-up, and as an outsider, Nashville (the show) seems like it’s one of those scenes that has been overly romanticized and that attracts a large amount of hangers-on, like Seattle two decades ago. Are there still elements of an authentic, Nashville scene, or has it all been watered down at this point?
Thankfully, the best music coming out of Nashville isn’t what gets the most attention, and the artists in Nashville have a lot of pride in being true to what they do. We don’t want it to be the next Seattle, that would be terrible. But a lot of people are moving to Nashville (85 people a day, 35,000 last year) and it’s getting harder to keep the good stuff away from the “hanger-ons”.
The actual Nashville music scene is fantastic, and very supportive. No one in Nashville supports, listens to, or follows what happens on music row. There is a lot of “music” that is manufactured down there, and a lot of people outside on Nashville listen to it, but it certainly doesn’t define the artists that LIVE in Nashville.
Speaking of pop-country acts, I’ve had the misfortune of watching about ten minutes of “The View” this week for the first time. When did Blake Shelton become the arbiter of country music? Does that sort of lowest-common-denominator, country-by-numbers stuff wear thin on the authentic, Americana singer-songwriter set, or do you not really pay attention to that stuff?
Blake Shelton is on multiple reality/game shows. His publicists tell people he is special, and a lot of folks drink that Kool-Aid.
No one is Nashville pays any attention to Music Row. It’s a joke. Even the people that work on that street, and pay their mortgages from that music, don’t listen to it. It’s manufactured for middle America. Middle America doesn’t buy my records. I’m okay with that. Honestly, we are too busy making things happen for ourselves to worry about a bunch of douchebags of 17th Ave rapping about their trucks.