Thursday, June 25, 2009
Q&A with Carbon Leaf's Barry Privett
Here is more from my phone interview with the Carbon Leaf singer:
You did the Belly Up a couple years ago. What do you recall about that gig?
The last time we played there, we had a great show. It was packed, so we were beside ourselves because of that. It’s good when people come out when you’re so far from your main home base. Having people come out and respond to the music is great. We actually recorded that show. It was a fun night.
For someone who’s never seen Carbon Leaf live, how would you describe a typical show? Do you tend to extend the songs out more?
We do, on ones that make sense anyway. We try to get the audience participating and connect on a live level – not just play through the songs as they are. A lot of guys in the band are really able to pop off. We can expand the songs a little bit. Maybe it’s different that what you hear on the album.
Are there certain areas of the country where you have pockets of really devoted fans?
It’s funny. You go to different areas and there is a different collective mindset it seems sometimes with crowds. Like in Burlington, VA or Chapel Hill, NC, they listen to the music in a different way than maybe people in St. Louis. Everyone’s digging it, but there’s a different kind of focus. There are some cities where people are just more unhinged and it’s this wild show. Then other places you’ve got people watching intently what we are doing onstage. It makes it a cool thing for us and informs us how we should change the set list, things like that. Any place that’s got people in it is good enough for me [laughs].
How has it been working with a new bassist and drummer live?
We’ve already started to write some and look forward to getting back in the studio with the new dynamic. As far as live goes, it’s been terrific. We spent 3 or 4 months just bringing everybody up to speed with the 80 or whatever songs we’ve got. John was good to come in and learn all the bass and vocal parts we dumped off on him. That was the priority – to get the live show up and running. Now we’re looking forward to writing new stuff.
When you were writing the lyrics on 'Woman,' did you find yourself gravitating toward subjects such as home life and women as opposed to the darker themes on the last album (“The War Was is Color,” for example)?
The title of ‘Love Loss Hope Repeat’ was tongue in cheek, but there was a lot of relationship things. I was fresh off one going into the album so it kind of added an urgency. ‘War’ was an intense song that almost didn’t make it on that record, but I’m glad it did.
My favorites on the new album are the ones with chiming, jangly guitars like “Lake of Silver Bells” and “Snowfall Music” with its gorgeous buildup and picturesque lyrics.
Yeah, there’s definitely some stuff with more levity to it.
Do you think those particular songs show how the band’s sound has progressed?
I don’t know. The guys all write from different places, which is good for us. We can have an album that’s got a lot of different influences rolling around. We don’t want to assign ourselves to any one sound, but it’s cool when you have songs like those that sound different from what you’ve done, that we can add to our pallet of stuff. Luckily our fans let us get away with that and it’s become a strength and outlet for us – to go from a roots song that sounds like a bluegrass or Celtic tune to a pop/rock song to something like “War Was in Color” and go really anywhere we can.
Or go to a bluesy, soulful one like “Meltdown,” which stands apart from the rest of the album’s songs.
It is. Likewise “Another Man’s Woman.” Those are two songs where it was a different thing for us.
Plus you got the amazing Toby Lightman on backing vocals on “Indecision.”
We did. We toured with her for a couple weeks awhile back. She was perfect for that song. I gave her a ring and she was happy to do it.
How did you get Butch Taylor to do piano and B3 work on a few tunes? Had you guys toured with Dave Matthews Band in the past and met him then?
We did some side stage stuff with them, but we’ve known Butch a little over 10 years now. He used to work at a studio in Richmond where Terry Clark, our guitarist, was also an engineer at before the band got really busy. He worked with Butch a lot on sessions and we kind of became friends with him through that relationship. Then he started doing more and more stuff with Dave Matthews over the years. It’s just one of those things where he’s just 'Butch from Richmond' to us. He was in town while we were making the album. He’s played on a few albums of ours. He was available and interested, so we spent a day or two doing some tracks.
Over the years, you’ve incorporated Celtic overtones into Carbon Leaf songs. Was that element there right from the start?
No, the first album, was just us coming out of college and the first 12 songs we ever wrote...Then on the second album, there were one or two songs with a rootsier, Celtic influence. On the third and fourth albums, we expanded on it a fair amount more with mandolin and penny whistle. When ‘Indian Summer’ came out, we felt like we weren’t really inspired by those sounds anymore and we wrote a bunch of songs that were like that. But we realized those weren’t the strongest songs we’d written of the bunch. The ones that became ‘Indian Summer’ were not Celtic influenced. People were like, ‘what’s going on? You’re changing your sound.’ And I’m going, ‘we’re always trying to change our sound.’ Not to reinvent the wheel, but to follow inspiration. For a split second, we thought, ‘should we stay on this course of the rootsy, Celtic thing?’ And the answer was a quick ‘no.’ It’s got to be genuine. Otherwise, you become a jukebox for someone else. So we were glad we realized that. Not to say it won’t return; it kind of does on “Pink” and “Seed,” which definitely harken back to that. Again, it’s got to be inspired and everything stems from that.
How long have you played the bagpipes and penny whistle?
I play poorly. I have my little thing where I’m limited and ok with that. I picked it up about nine years ago and got really into the bagpipes for about three years. Then they became too impractical. You can’t play them with the band really well and take a lot of maintenance to keep the reed moist. I bring them out for St. Patrick’s week, put it that way. They’re good in small doses. The penny whistle as well.
When you guys first started out was the Richmond music scene really fertile with a bunch of college bands?
It was. There was a lot going on at the time. Cracker was big coming out of there. Dave Matthews was the local success story who went from playing every Tuesday in Charlottesville and every Wednesday in Richmond and all the sudden [his popularity] just explodes. Then you had bands like Avail, the local punk heroes that were road dogs. Coming around recently, you have Lamb of God and Jason Mraz. There’s lots of big and small colleges where bands just emerge from.
Carbon Leaf spent nearly a decade doing the DIY thing. Was that by design or because the major labels didn’t offer you what you wanted?
It was pretty much the latter. I think the best asset for us was not having any help starting out. There was no label interest; we didn’t have a manager or booking agent or publicist. We had nobody helping and had to learn to do everything ourselves. That kind of sucked, because we wanted help and you couldn’t buy it. I think it really helped build our foundation and we would come to learn through the course of our career where we got a manager on board after the AMAs and lost management and had to do it ourselves. There were periods where we had to pull from our pasts and take control of things if we weren’t getting the help we needed. It’s been invaluable, the do it yourself approach. And we’re still very hands on. I’m sitting right here, doing payroll and answering emails even though we’ve got good a management team and label all in place.
What effect did the AMA appearance several years ago have on the band?
It definitely garnered attention as this whole kind of undiscovered talent thing was just kicking off. We were only one of three unsigned bands to perform at the AMAs before they killed the award. Then “American Idol” came aboard. The biggest thing it did was give us a reason to be out on the road with something to promote. When we got home from the AMAs, we were like, ‘let’s take what we can from this and use it to our benefit.’ That answer was to get out and start touring and touring. The whole label/management thing quickly ebbed. With our touring, it was a big deal. A couple radio stations picked up on the AMA story and started spinning “The Boxer,” which is the song we performed [on TV]. It got us some good attention in DC and Seattle and led to Vanguard being interested in the band. But it took a couple years. We didn’t sign with a label until 2-3 years after the AMAs.
Since your video for “Learn to Fly” featured “actress” Katy Perry, what did you guys think when she later had some major hits of her own?
It’s funny. We shared the same management company at the time. We made that video a year or two before her record. It was interesting to experience that and see her blow up. Good for her, right?