Slaid Cleaves Q&A
Slaid Cleaves Q&A '04
By Rob Patterson
Jun 2004

Slaid Cleaves has to chuckle a bit when he starts to talk about being tagged as a Texas singer-songwriter. But to paraphrase the Lyle Lovett song, that's right, he's not from Texas, but we're proud to claim him anyway. And why shouldn't we? Since landing in Austin from Portland, bell & ross replica watches Maine at the dawn of the 1990s, he has emerged as one of the city's leading singer-songwriters. And though he may not have a drawl or play much in the way of Texas twang, Cleaves still has qualities in his songs that resemble the best from the honor roll of Texas songwriters.

First of all, there's his way of telling stories in song in a way that makes them play like a good movie or novel in the space of just a few minutes. And then there's his poetic eloquence that nonetheless always carries a common, almost populist touch. You can hear such qualities in the material of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Butch Hancock, and by now, Slaid Cleaves is a name that can comfortably reside in the same sentence as those.

He was raised in Berwick, Maine, and the piano lessons of his youth led Cleaves to spend his teen years playing a bar bands, grinding out popular numbers by Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and The J. Geils Band while slipping some early compositions of his own in between. While in college at Tufts University in Boston, where he studied philosophy, Cleaves switched to guitar. And thanks to the music he heard on Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska album as well as, ironically, the music of The Clash (which led him to hearing Joe Ely), Cleaves delved back into the artists that he'd heard as a youth in his father's record collection - Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Buck Owens, Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, The Everly Brothers and such.

Cleaves taped those albums and took them with him for his junior year abroad in Cork, Ireland, where he started busking on the street and writing songs. After graduation he played the Portland music scene for a while before moving to Austin for the warmer weather and creative community. Soon after arriving, he won the Kerrville Folk Festival New Folk competition, and a few years later caught the ear of Rounder Records. He has since recorded three albums and an EP of holiday songs with producer and guitarist Gurf Morlix, known for his work with Lucinda Williams, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Robert Earl Keen. His latest, Wishbones, is like a collection of vivid short stories with melodies you keep whistling after you close the pages, and proof positive that Slaid Cleaves, though not a native, is as good a music gets here in Texas.

Q: This is your third album with Gurf Morlix producing. What's the difference between each time working with him?

A: The first time around was a learning experience. I'd never had a producer before franck muller replica, so I deferred to Gurf a lot on the first record, trusted him, and he did a great job. We were kind of under a strict deadline. I think I had to leave for a tour after the three weeks were up. So there's a lot that I wasn't crazy with on that record although I'm generally happy with it. With Broke Down, I knew Gurf, so it was a little easier to speak my mind. I was still intimidated by Gurf early on. I still look up to him like an older brother. But back then it was very intimidating for me. We've become close friends, so it's easier and easier to challenge him and stick to my guns if I don't feel something is going right. So this past one was almost too easy. I looked at him when we were done in July and said, "This can't be done. It was too easy." Gurf does so much work on a record that all the artist has to do is bring in the songs and sing them and Gurf does everything else. If I'm at a loss for something, Gurf will come up with something. If I don't like something, all I have to do is speak my mind, and the wheels will start turning in his head and he'll try something different. It really was easy. I ended up going back and redoing one song, so I was right, it wasn't as easy as I thought. But that was just because I hadn't captured the feel of the song. It was a brand new song. I'd never gone into the studio with such brand new songs.

Q: You wrote "Wishbones" with Ray Wylie Hubbard. How did that come about?

A: Over the last couple of years I started and dropped a whole bunch of songs. I was picking through my junkyard pile on my computer, and I found three songs that could maybe go together. I had rejected them but I knew each song had a gem in there somewhere, at least one good idea that I could salvage. So I took the three good ideas out of the three failed songs and tried to cut and paste them into a single song. I was working on that and having some trouble with it. And somehow Ray found out that I was having struggling and he called me out of the blue and invited me down to his place to do some writing. And that's what I brought to the table. And he immediately he started churning out ideas and rewriting verses and gave me a fresh start on it and I went home and finished it.

Q: What did he bring to the table?

A: Literally the idea of skin and wishbones instead of just wishbones. He wrote maybe one or two verses when I was with him and emailed me a couple more verses later, of which I may have used one whole and parts of another one. It is sort of my m.o. lately with songwriting. I'll bring in a partially completed song and my co-writer will add a bunch of ideas and I'll pick and choose my favorite ideas and fit them into the song. And it's somehow greater than the sum of the parts.

Q: What sorts of things get you writing? Is there a common thread of things that will bring an idea into your head and get something churning?

A: There's a few different ones. One common one is just a story, a story that I think will fit the parameters of a song, like the "Breakfast In Hell" story or the one about the jockey ["Quick As Dreams"]. If I hear a story personally from someone or through a book or a movie or something

like that it gets my mind turning. I start to think, can I take the essence of that story or the tragedy of it or the irony of it or the excitement of it and fit it into the song form? It's always kind of a challenge, an interesting challenge, because you have these parameters you have to fit the story into and you have only so many words or verses. I've found I really enjoy it. But that's only one type of song; I think there's three or four of them on the new record. Other ideas are let's see once in a while I will write a song that's truly emotional sort of thing, a stream of consciousness kind of thing where I write a couple of pages of crap, but there's a line or two that stands out and has some truth to it. So you sort of invent a song to accentuate that truth, for that to live in. That happens sometimes. And in a similar way, someone can just say something – a turn of phrase, a colorful saying or a weird description. Sometimes I can lift that into a song.

Q: You wrote "Drinkin' Days" with Karen Poston, who you also wrote "Horseshoe Lounge" with for your last album. You even mention the Horseshoe in it. Is it in some way a sequel?

A: Yeah, that's how I introduce it. "Horseshoe Lounge" was a song she brought to me when I was writing songs for Broke Down. And I helped her flesh that out and finish it up. I wrote an earlier version of "Drinkin' Days" that wasn't very good. And I thought, well, it's a perfect song to bring to her because we have this history and it would be fun to write it with her. So we spent a couple of afternoons banging out ideas on that and then brought it home and finished it up.

Q: So there's two songs with horses on the new album. How did the horses ride their way onto this record?

A: A total accident. One accident was the character in the "Horses and Divorces" song who is one of those wonderful characters I bump into who is a friend of the family. He spouts colorful language all the time of the sort you don't hear on TV or polite company. I just followed him around with a notebook and just wrote that song around some funny things he said at a party one night. The other one was pulled out of the book "Seabiscuit." I took a bunch of time off last year to try to get back into writer mode. And I was inspired by a bunch of books including "Seabiscuit," which is a fabulous story. It's a really great book; the movie really pales in comparison. There's a whole chapter in there about how rough it was for jockeys back then, a bunch of harrowing tales. And one particular tale, the first time I read it I instantly thought, wow, if I put this into a song, it'll have the adventure of "Breakfast In Hell" and the tragedy of "Lydia." I had to change a few things to fit the form - a rhyme here, a different place there. But it's pretty much a true story. So I just happened into the horse thing.

Q: You got your start in music up in Maine, where you grew up, and then moved to Austin. In what ways are the music scenes in those two places different?

A: Well, they're incredibly different. The Portland, Maine music scene I moved out of 12 years ago was vibrant, but on a tiny scale. I was able to make a living, ironically, which I couldn't do in Austin for seven years. It was mostly playing in bars and playing a lot of covers. I could do a few of my own songs and was starting to develop a little crowd up there. And I had a little Americana type trio for a couple of years. We were playing the original club circuit up there, which is a pretty marginal thing. Not a real strong scene like Austin has - strong radio, strong press, good studios and producers, and a very sophisticated and experienced audience that goes out and supports artists. Austin has so much of every aspect of a music scene that it just makes Portland seem like an average little town with some creative and good people plugging away.

Q: Are there similarities between the two, in a way?

A: Well. There's not a whole lot that's similar. I love both towns, and they're sort of both of a manageable size. Portland is a manageable small city and Austin is kind of a manageable large city. And they both have a camaraderie in the music scenes, and there's not a lot of back stabbing and competition. Portland is a pretty damn artsy little place. All right, here's the way that they're similar: Portland is the sort of cultural center of Maine. And all the weird people move to Portland in the same way that Austin is the cultural center for Texas.

Q: Who are the songwriters who set the standard for you? What songwriters do you look to and go, I want to be as good as that?

A: Oh yeah. Their names are like signposts. I heard "Youngstown" by Springsteen on the radio the other day and was reminded what an amazing song that is - the way he took the story of that town and put it into that form. I was really humbled when I heard that. He was an early hero when I was a kid, 16, 17 and 18, and I was playing in cover bands and garage bands. Especially the Nebraska record. And through the Nebraska record I went back and researched the roots of that Kind of songwriting, back to Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash. And they've become favorites of mine and my main yardsticks to compare songs to.

Q: Do you have favorite places to play here in Texas?

A: Gruene Hall of course is the first place that comes to mind. The Cactus Café in Austin has become my home gig. It's a really good feeling that, and the staff has been there so long. And Griff Luneburg is a wonderful and lovable character, and they treat me really well there. That and Gruene Hall are probably like my home gigs.

Q: Do you find it interesting that people call you a Texas songwriter?

A: Yeah, it's always kind of funny. I felt that in Maine too. Maine is very independent and proud 
too. But I wasn't born in Maine. I was born in D.C. My dad was in college and we moved to Texas when I was five. So I can never claim to be a native of Maine, and I'll never claim to be a native Texan. I don't know. I just feel like I'm not from anywhere.

Q: Do you feel like there's been a Texan influence in your music and writing?

A: I don't think there's been a Texan influence stylistically. But I think that Austin has had an influence in making me work so much harder at writing. I was sort of a lackadaisical songwriter before. My first few years, as long as it had three verses and a chorus and made sense, fine, it was okay. But after six or seven years of failure and abject failure in Austin, going into debt with my credit cards and family and wife, all that sort of hit me and made me thing I had to be better and work harder. I started being really hard on myself songwriting wise, for the first time really. But the result of that was the first batch of songs that Gurf and I hooked up with each other on.

Q: Is there a song or some songs you've written where you feel like you are really happy with what you wrote and feel you really nailed it?

A: There's a few that I think I'll sing forever. Like "One Good Year," which I co-wrote with Steve Brooks in town. I brought it to him, because I thought it was kind of mediocre. And he injected a bunch of ideas, some I used, some of which I didn't. But he inspired me to take it in another direction from where I'd been going and finish it up and be proud of it. "Breakfast In Hell" is another. It was sort of done as a whim and just as an exercise. And it came out so well, and it's such a wonderful story, and I was able to compress it into this little mini epic. And I think that one will stand the test of time. So yeah, there's a handful that I think I think I will be singing throughout my career.


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