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Slaid Cleaves - The Triste Interview
|Slaid Cleaves is a country-folk singer-songwriter, with a superb high tenor voice, who had greatly increased his following and profile with two critically acclaimed albums when he met up with Triste at "The Hop and Grape", Manchester, in 2001. His then current album "Broke Down" had received great reviews and his shows, with producer Gurf Morlix alongside on lead guitar, showed he could cut it live too. Cleaves has never been a prolific songwriter, as he admits in the interview, and the the world had to wait until 2004 for the release of his next album, "Wishbones".
Triste: We were chatting on the way down and discovered we knew quite lot about you from the album sleeves and various articles. What interests us is that people over here like Peter (Bruntnell) started off in open mic sessions over here and slowly worked his way up. He told me that what really kick-started him working was when he became a Dad and he thought; "Shit! I'd better start earning some money - someone depends on me". So we were rather intrigued as to how you actually got to the stage of your first record. What sort of things were you doing over there?
Slaid Cleaves: Well my first records were home-grown, very independent projects. They were very small and done on no money. We'd do 'em ourselves, at small local studios and the guy from the local record store had a little tiny label and he helped me release these cassettes in the early 90's. This ahappened for the first three or four projects and then, when I tried to move from being a local performer to more of a national performer, I knew I needed a label for that. I tried to tour on my own without radio support, publicity and all that and it was just impossible. So I knew I needed a label and I hooked up with Rounder after a couple of years of trying to find one. I did the first record in '97 and "Broke Down" was my second one. So, those records allowed me to tour nationally and I don't have to work day jobs anymore. Or I could, but I'm too busy.
Triste: Was it difficult getting the contract with Rounder?
Slaid Cleaves: Yeh. I'd been looking for a deal for 8 years.
Triste: Did winning the competition help? Was it demo tapes or contacts?
Slaid Cleaves: It was just a combination of plugging away and making contacts and a little luck here and there and persistence. The luck part was the owner of the record company comes down to Austin for South By South West and he stays with an old friend who happened to be a big fan of mine - actually somebody in my band was working for this friend. And when he comes down he asks all his friends who should I check out? Who's new? I was the new guy in town - the guy with a little bit of a buzz about him and so he came to see me. And though we didn't sign a deal for another two years, that was the start of it. That was the start of the relationships.
Triste: When you started what kind of places were the open mics. Over here it's people playing in pubs effectively.
Slaid Cleaves: Yeh, that's where I started. I don't play there now. I started as a busker in the streets of Cork. Then went back to The States and travelled a little bit checking out new towns - never staying in one place too long. I did that for a couple of years on and off while I worked various day jobs and then finally through the open mic scene I got into the club/pub scene. Which is fairly good and you can make a living - you can make $150 a night, four or five nights a week and I did that for two years. In the mean time I was forming a band and writing my own songs and I just got bored with that - playing cover music. I was always mixing my originals in with the others but no one was listening, it was background music.
Triste: So what was your set composed of at that stage?
Slaid Cleaves: Just my favourite stuff. Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Pogues, Christie Moore. I learnt the Pogues and Christie Moore when I was over in Ireland.
Triste: So you hadn't sold out totally - you weren't playing all the latest hits - you were still playing music you wanted anyway?
Slaid Cleaves: You know I loved it at first, when I first realised that you could make a living playing music. I was just ecstatic . Everybody keeps telling you that you can't do it, you know? I didn't have a day job anymore. I wanted to move from playing the pubs to playing concerts.
Triste: How poverty stricken were you at this time? I've heard the story where you had to take part in drug testing in order to make some money? Is that true or is it a glamourisation of your situation?
Slaid Cleaves: It is true. Glamourisation? (Laughter)
Triste: I mean the stock romantic view of a poverty stricken artist in his garret.
Slaid Cleaves: I did it regularly.
Triste: Does it pay well?
Slaid Cleaves: It does very well. People travel around the world doing that. There are facilities all over the Sates and Europe. I know there are people who fund their European vacation by checking into wherever in Frankfurt for two weeks, then they can travel for two months. It's decent money. The biggest I had was $4000 for three week's in-house quarantine.
Triste: So did you do that sort of that thing when you came over to Cork?
Slaid Cleaves: No. I only did that when I moved to Austin when I couldn't get anymore bar gigs. There's no bar scene in Austin. It's great in New England, Boston, Portsmouth, but Texas it's so spread out its not economical, plus there are so many musicians in Austin that supply and demand means that people play for tips - you don't pay for 150 bucks you play for 30 bucks. So I instantly found out that I had no marketable skills in Austin, so I signed up with a pharm company.
Triste: When you came over to Cork what was all that about?
Slaid Cleaves: Oh I was just following a girlfriend over. It was all her idea. Her grandparents were Irish. It was junior year in college. It was actually a lot cheaper than the school I was going to in the States. It all sounded like a good idea at the time, but she pretty much dumped me after a week so I was pretty much committed there for another nine months. But it was very essential to my career, because I was just learning songs for the first time. So there I was in my little cold-water bed-sit, with no girlfriend, no friends no TV, no family, no car, no job, just a couple of classes a guitar and a suitcase full of tapes of my Dad's old records. This was my learning period. And also the city of Cork had a great busking scene - any night of the week there'd be four or five sitting on the street spread out about the city centre and they'd be good.
Triste: Did you pick up on the common-link between traditional Irish music and country music? Was it quite natural?
Slaid Cleaves: I picked up on Christie Moore and became a Pogues fan and listened to a local guy called Jimmy McCarthy and went to show. The real link I see between Cork and Austin, Texas, is in both Cork and Austin music seems to be a part of the culture and it happens all over the city in different places. Like in Austin there's live music played in the airports. Austin calls itself the live music capital of the world. And its seemed that way in Cork too, everybody can play a little bit and it wasn't like that where I grew up in New England. In New England it's very conservative, music was left to the musicians and the professionals - normal people didn't dally in such marginal stuff. I'm exaggerating a little bit, but in Texas, in Austin especially, it seems that; like everyone can play a song or two. You'd go to a party and a guitar would always show up and it's the same way in Cork too.
Triste: Your parents weren't too happy for you to go into music full-time, but your mother had a strong liking for Woody Guthrie and many of the acts which became influential to you.
Slaid Cleaves: Yeh. They were great music fans. They were scared for me. They knew that it'd be tough and tried to dissuade me. They nudged me into college and hoped that I'd find something respectable. I kept that hope for a long time and during the lean years in Austin they were kind of needling me. "How long are you going to keep on doing this?" But this year, they're retired now, they want to follow me wherever I go.
Triste: Are they over here with you now?
Slaid Cleaves: No, not over here yet, but they came over to Texas for 3 months last winter.
Triste: Is this your first trip over here - on stage.
Slaid Cleaves: Yes, er.. Well I came in support of Ray Wylie Hubbard. Ray Wylie and I did a tour in 1997 when my first record came out. This is the first time I've been over with my band.
Triste: Is this your regular band?
Slaid Cleaves: Yes it's the core. I have other people in other parts of the country I play with because I can't afford to carry these guys with me everywhere?
Triste: What attracts you to come over here when there is still so much of America to conquer?
Slaid Cleaves: Yes I know. I haven't been to California yet! There's a kind of myth in the States that Europe's so much better. But that's not true at all... It's equally as good a place to play. The kind of music we do is kind of fringe music. Its got it's underground element here too, but in some places in Europe it's just as strong as it is in the States. We'll see how this tour goes. I'll probably lose a lot of money on this tour, between me and the record company, but we'll see. I've got my record on the playlist on the radio. I don't think it's been played a lot yet but it's on the list!
Triste: It's getting real good reviews.
Slaid Cleaves: Continental hired this really great publicist Sue Williams who's doing a great job. I realised with this record that it takes more than just a good record. It sad but it takes hiring the right people. A lot of people have worked on my record really hard and done a great job and I attribute a lot of its success them.
Triste: There are quite a few non-original songs on the album. As a songwriter yourself, who probably releases an album once every couple of years or so, that's a lot of space that could be used for your own new songs being used up. What was your thinking behind this?
Slaid Cleaves: I wanted the record to be as strong as possible. I had a few other songs that I'd written in that three-year period. But I'm a very slow writer. So I felt I only had seven songs that I was really happy with and three or four other songs that I wasn't quite as proud of happy with. I'd rather put on a great song by a friend or influence of mine. I have a very personal relationship with the covers I put on. So I'd rather put those on than a song that's mediocre just because I wrote it. I want it to be strong.
Triste: A lot of your songs are narratives in the third person. Do you like telling stories?
Slaid Cleaves: That's what affects me in a song. That's what got me interested in songs. Songs by people like Woody Guthrie about hard times and people suffering. Springsteen was one of first really big influences when I was sixteen. Just forming the dream of being a singer - a rock and roll star or whatever. He painted those stories in his early songs. I'm talking early Springsteen. Songs like "Jungleland", "Rosalita", "Meeting Across The River". All those early songs are so character driven and filled with melodrama and adventures. That kind of instilled that passion in me to tell stories. It all came to a head with Springsteen's Nebraska. That's when I really started writing and playing and singing. I learned the whole album and played the album from start to finish when I was a busker. Those songs are just so stark emotional stories. Through Springsteen I kind of rediscovered people like Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie who I hadn't heard since I was a kid. They sort of became my trinity there. People to shoot for. People I aspire to.
Triste: Do you ever write on piano or just on guitar?
Slaid Cleaves: I don't really play piano any more. I did as a kid we had a piano, but then I went to college and travelled. I was a kid who never practised. But I w anted to play guitar but they wouldn't let me. And then when I tried I couldn't - my hand were too small it was too painful. I can't even remember how painful it was cos I've got such nice calluses on my fingers now I think it was pretty painful.
Triste: I know you wrote a new melody for some Woody Guthrie lyrics. Was that song written before Nora opened the floodgates, protecting the reputation?
Slaid Cleaves: I wrote it seven years ago. I didn't officially ask but I heard it was strictly forbidden at the time. His management at that time wouldn't allow that, their philosophy was that his legacy should be kept just as it was. Then I guess I started reading the press about the Billy Bragg and Wilco thing and thought something must have changed. Luckily I have a friend who's a friend of Nora's. Do you know Jimmy La Vey the singer-songwriter from Austin? He knows Nora very well. He's from Oklahoma and tied very close to Woody Guthrie family and he acted as a go between and was instrumental in helping me get permission.
Triste: Have you ever followed Woody Guthrie's comments about songwriting? It's something like you take an old song and where it goes high, you go low, and where it goes fast, you go slow. And you get a new song.
Slaid Cleaves: I never heard that. I was at a folk conference earlier this year and I talked to the guy who's in charge of the Guthrie archives in Washington DC. It's his job to go through the archive and catalogue and analyse it and he said Woody stole almost everything. He knows all about music and melodies and tradition from the folk tradition. He said uou could tell which tunes Woody wrote cos they're not any good! (Laughs).
(Thanks to Steve Henderson for the help with the interview)