Jarrod Dickenson Interview: Jarrod Sits Down With Neil in Manchester to Discuss New Music, Touring and More!
These days, Jarrod Dickenson seems to tour the UK more than most British-based artists, and we’re not complaining! Becoming a popular part of the folk/Americana scene in Britain, he’s currently on an almost sold-out tour, taking in venues all over the country. On top of these, he’s prepping the release of a series of EP’s that pay tribute to some of his home state’s finest artists, ‘Under A Texas Sky’. Neil caught up with him for a chat in Manchester before he played The Deaf Institute:
Welcome back to Manchester Jarrod. How’s things?
It’s all good, the tour’s underway, the shows have been great so far, we’re trying our best to stay as healthy as we can.
How was Ireland?
Yeah, Ireland is always fun, with my wife being from Belfast we have family there. The shows are always great, it’s great to see the family, so yeah, it’s good.
You’re widely known as a story-telling song-writer. Many of your songs feature one or more characters. Where do you tend to drawn those kind of characters from?
Oh boy! I don’t know, to be honest, and the fear is that if you try to think too hard about where they come from, they won’t anymore. I’m sure it just comes from reading, and films, and stories that I heard from my grandfather or other people in my life. I’m sure that’s what it all stems from. But most of them aren’t autobiographical, and they are just characters that I make up because they seem like a good idea at the time.
I understand that you took up guitar relatively late, at age 18?
Yeah, a little after I turned 18, I was a senior in high school. Up to that point, like all good Texans, I was always playing sports – baseball as a kid, and then I took up golf when I was around 13 or so. I was heavily into it and planned to play in college and who knows after that. And then I picked up a guitar when I was 18, and it very quickly took over everything. Golf took a back seat, as did everything else in my life. It was pretty clear, not necessarily that it was going to be a career path at first, but it was clear that it was a very important thing in my life. I suppose it was the right thing to do.
What was the trigger at that time? Was there any one thing, or was it an accumulation of things, or what?
Well, I think that everybody that takes up guitar, the main reason they do it is to get girls (laughs). I think if anyone tells you different, they’re lying. For me it was… music was always a huge part of my life. My dad was a big music lover. He was born in the Fifties, grew up in the Sixties, so the music that I grew up on was the music that he grew up on – which was the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Neil Young. That was my upbringing, and I’m very fortunate that was my upbringing. A lot of my friends at the time didn’t have parents that were particularly interested in music, so they just listened to whatever was on the radio – which in the mid to late Nineties wasn’t always great music. Better than it is now, arguably, but there was a lot of shite on the radio as well. Music was always in the house, it was always in the car, it was always a really big part of our family. So really, wanting to pick up guitar was wanting to see if I could do it, wanting to see if I could make those same kind of sounds come out. There wasn’t really anything beyond that. I never thought really about getting on stage, never thought about doing it as a career. All of that seemed kind of ridiculous. It was just for fun.
How about the songwriting. When did that begin to happen?
It was sort of just a natural progression, really, of learning an instrument. For me it was, I would learn a few chords, and then you would learn a handful of songs that use those chords. And then I thought, “What if I put this chord here and that chord there?” and kind of jumble it up, and make something of my own out of the knowledge I’ve acquired. That was it really, again just messing around for fun, but again it just completely took over. Once you wrote a song, albeit a terrible one, you got the itch. You know, “Ooh, this is cool, I’ve created something that wasn’t there before”, and it just kind of went from there.
What about lyric writing? Was creative writing something you enjoyed at school?
No, to be honest, again I was always outside. I was always playing sports, I was always doing anything I could to not be cooped up indoors. My mom, when I was a kid, was an avid reader and she was always saying, “You should read books”, and at the time I was thinking, “Why on earth would I want to do that when I can be outside?”. It wasn’t really until I graduated from college that I genuinely picked up a book for the first time, simply for pleasure. In high school, I just wasn’t interested. In college, I was interested but you were reading so much text book a night. Who has that much time? One of the first things I read was “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath, getting stuck in right away, and it blew me away. And I picked up John Steinbeck, and that absolutely floored me. And then I was just off to the races trying to make up for lost time, thinking, “Why have I waited so long?”. Now I’ve always got a book. But I definitely think my lyrics and storytelling were influenced by people like John Steinbeck, because the way that they wrote about the everyday man and the human condition has always been something that struck a chord with me.
You’ve become quite a regular visitor to the UK. What keeps you coming back – apart from the warm beer?
(Laughs)Yeah, that’s a fun side note! The first few times I came over I was like, “What is this?”. And then before long I’d be back in the States and I’d find myself wishing that I could have a nice, luke warm, stale ale (more laughs). But no, the reason we keep coming back is simple. People keep coming out to the gigs. It’s a tough road, it’s a hard business to get anyone interested to come out. There are so many other things that they could spend their time and their money doing. So when people are interested in coming to hear you play your songs, that’s a pretty incredible thing. And for whatever reason, we’ve found that over here. There is a group of people, and thankfully it seems to keep growing, that is interested in what I’m doing. So as long as that’s the case, I’ll be coming.
I’m sure that as long as you are coming, people will keep coming to see you.
(Touches wood)Here’s hoping!
I understand you’ve moved back to Nashville?
Yeah, we did. My wife and I moved about a year and a half ago now I guess. I was in New York for about 5 and a half years and loved it, absolutely love the city and I miss it every day. But the extortionate rent just didn’t make sense any more. We could do it, but it would mean that when I was not on the road I was working 7 days a week in a hat store to pay rent, and my wife was working all the time. We weren’t always able to travel together, and it just didn’t make sense any more. It seems like there’s a mass exodus from New York and L.A. of people moving to Nashville. I’d lived there once before. Several of our New York friends were moving at the same time, and it just kind of made sense.
So you took a bit of a community with you, almost?
Yeah, we’ve sort of got our old New York crew there anyway, so while we miss the city we’ve got our people there.
You’re releasing an EP soon (“Under A Texas Sky”), what can you tell us about that?
Yeah, it’s kind of a new thing for me, this project. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a while. I’ve never really done a project of songs that weren’t mine, you know? I wanted to find a way to sort of acknowledge and pay tribute to the many incredible artists who’ve come out of Texas, because there are many. So I decided that I would do this EP, and as I was thinking about the EP and thinking about what songs to do and what artists to cover, I very quickly realised that I would need to do multiple volumes of this because you can’t even scratch the surface with a 5 song record. But for this first one I wanted to do a few names that people would know, and then maybe a few that they wouldn’t be as familiar with. So we covered tunes by Roy Orbison, who obviously would be a pretty well-known guy, but I don’t know if everyone knows he was from Texas. We did a Willie Nelson song, a tune by one of my absolute favourite songwriters Guy Clark, and then a couple that you may or may not know. There’s a guy named Doug Sahm, who was probably best known for his band called The Sir Douglas Quintet, and then a brilliant R&B singer from the Fifties and Sixties called Esther Phillips – again just an absolute powerhouse, kind of like Billie Holliday, even bluesier. So that was the first run of “Under A Texas Sky”, I’m sure there’ll be plenty more to come. I’m excited to get it out there.
What was the thinking behind an EP format, rather than a full album?
Money, is the biggest one, to be really blunt. It’s all self-funded. It was a pretty quick deal, we had everybody in the studio all done in one day, pretty much, or at least all of the main tracking. All live, which is how I make all of my records, and then came back another day and added some background vocals. It was a pretty quick affair, partly because I like making records that way. I like there to be a sort of sense of urgency, and I like doing it live because I think you can feel that, when musicians are actually playing together. But also it’s cheaper to do it that way, so that certainly helps matters.
I love the live sound and atmosphere that you manage to capture on your recordings. What brought you to that sound? Would you say that that is “your” sound now?
I don’t know if it’s necessarily “my” sound. For me, it’s pretty simple. Most of the records that I grew up loving were made that way. I think there’s an honesty there, and a rawness and an energy that you get when you get all of the musicians playing together in a room, and there are little mishaps and mistakes but they all contribute to the feel of the record. I think technology has gotten to a point where it’s so easy to fix those mistakes, and it’s so easy to get carried away fixing those mistakes, and before you know it you have this nice, pristine, polished thing that doesn’t sound like humans made it, you know? It doesn’t feel like people were actually in a room together making music. That’s not the kind of music that I like, it’s not the kind of music that kicks me in the gut. All the records that I loved, you know, you listen to those Howlin’ Wolf records, or Beatles records even, the early stuff and even the ones where they went nuts with the studio stuff, there was an element of them playing it together, and that’s just what does it for me. But everybody’s different and not all genres of music, that’s the right way to make a record. For me, if it’s a rootsy kind of thing, I think that’s just the way it goes – at least for me it is.
Once you’d decided on this project, how did you go about choosing which artists to feature, and which one song?
Yeah, it was a tough one. Like I say, there’s loads of artists out there. I mean, both of the Vaughan brothers, you’ve got Rodney Crowell, Steve Earl, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Billy Preston, you know, Don Henley was a Texan… So this list could go on for ever. So yeah, it was tricky. Like I said, I wanted to pick a few that people would know, and a few that might surprise them a bit. Same with the song choices. I didn’t necessarily want to do the most famous song by each artist. And then with people like Roy Orbison, I just had to pick a song I could actually sing (laughs). That guy’s vocal range was just outrageous. So some of those tunes, while I love ‘em and I’ll give it the old college try when I’m alone in my car, it just wouldn’t sound right. There are a lot of factors, I guess.
So not just your favourites, it’s what you felt would work with your sound?
Yeah. Part of doing a collection of songs that aren’t mine, where I wanted to do songs that I felt like I could sort of make mine. There is an element of, “I love this song, but I’m not sure I can do it justice”, or it just doesn’t really fit. I had to take all things into account.
I’ve not heard all the tracks on the EP yet, but certainly the Esther Phillips track sounds like it should fit with you really well and I’m looking forward to hearing your version.
That’s probably my favourite one from the EP, to be honest. I’m a blues fanatic, so that kind of slow, minor blues thing… As soon as I heard it, I knew that was going to be one that was on the EP.
Each of those artists has their own legacy, with their own fans but also with the wider public – particularly Roy Orbison and Willie Nelson. How conscious were you of that legacy?
Yeah, it’s there. I tried not to think too much about it because, more than anything, I’m a fan of their music like anyone else is, you know? So I wasn’t really thinking about their legacy, just I love their records. I grew up listening to their music, it meant something to me and I wanted it to be part of the project I was working on.
So it’s a tribute to the individual artists, as much as to Texas itself?
Yeah, very much so, absolutely. Like I said, these are the people that I grew up listening to, a big part of why I got into music, because of their music. It’s very much tipping my hat to these other artists who’ve paved the way.
You’ve mentioned that there’s likely to be a series of these EP’s. How many do you think there’ll be, and how often will you release them?
I imagine I’ll do another of my own records before the next EP. I sort of envisage it being something that I do between each record, as sort of a nice project. One, to keep momentum alive, and two, just to have something fun to do as I’m writing the next record.
So, aside from the EP, and you’ve got 10 dates in UK on this tour, what does the rest of 2019 hold for you currently?
Well, currently we’re coming back for a few festivals. We’re doing Cambridge Folk Festival this year, which I’m excited about. Today we announced that we’re doing Red Rooster, which will be a lot of fun, I know Nick Lowe is playing it this year and some other, just brilliant artists. So we’ll definitely do a few UK festivals. We’re going to do some dates in mainland Europe as well, we’re working on that at the moment. I’m sure we’ll be touring back in the States. Kind of business as usual, on the road as much as I possibly can be.
Anything likely to happen with the new album this year?
I would love to go back into the studio this year and start working on it. It all depends on if finances and other things fall into place. I’d say I’m about three-quarters or more written for the new record, and quite a few others in the works, so I’m eager to get at it.
Jarrod’s new EP ‘Under a Texas Sky’ is available on 8th March, pre-order from iTunes here.