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Stacey Earle - The Triste Interview
|Stacey Earle was interviewed in July of 1999 before a sell-out gig at the Adelphi in Preston. It was one of those rare hot Summer nights when the doors need to be open to let the cool air come in and the music escape. Earle had just released her first album "Simple Gearle" and was performing as part of a three-piece with her husband and son and seemed happy, relaxed and in positive mood. In conver- sation she exudes positivity and energy although she admits there have been times in her life when things were not always so easy.
Triste: At home you've said your family sang a lot. I suppose you didn't sit around the fireside singing Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard songs, but you must also have sung all kinds of other stuff too?
Stacey Earle: We sang all kinds of stuff all the kids were able to sing - though we didn't do it professionally. My parents loved to sing - we sang a lot in the car. Even my parents, they loved a big assortment of music themselves. Steve brought home all kinds of things.
Triste: Has your taste changed with maturity?
Stacey Earle: Steve knew at age 14 what he was going to do. He said I'm going to be a singer-songwriter, I'm going to be a star, that was his attitude. I became a mother at 16 and so I didn't even think about that. I always played the guitar at home and sang but I wasn't able to dream that. When you're a mother, and then becoming a single mum, things like that are a fantasy. So I guess you're not allowed to dream like that. So I basically worked all the time but played and sang. So I didn't even think or dream of playing music for a living until I was 29 years old. The only reason that happened was that I ended up in Nashville to be Steve's nanny. I got to sing on "Promise You Anything" and he asked me to go on the road with him. And that paid really well, so I had a little money in the bank. So there I was in Nashville, I had the kids, for the first time that dream to think it, to be allowed to became a possibility. You know how you daydream and you see yourself on stage. I didn't daydream like that - suddenly I did, I saw myself standing on the stage playing. I stayed in Nashville and this was in about '91, after the Heartbreak tour, I stayed in Nashville and I did what everybody does in Nashville, I started playing writers' nights. I got me a waitress job. The big joke in Nashville is that if you want a songwriter you yell "Waiter!". I started doing all the things that I was least able to vision it. I was half-way there because one I had some stage time and it was incredible stage time. I was thrown in the fire. Most people get on a small stage and work their way up. My first stage was an arena.
Triste: I was going to ask you about that, if pre-Hard Way you had ever played in bands before - such as when you were 16?
Stacey Earle: No. The first time I stood on a stage was an arena stage with thousands of people in Australia in Sidney. So I wasn't able to be afraid of anything. So when I came home and tackled Nashville and those smaller stages, that part of the fear was over. There was a different pressure to face being the frontman, it is different being a sideman.
Triste: When Steve asked you to go on tour did he have to nudge you or what?
Stacey Earle: I think he wanted to give me a nudge, but at the same time he was growing pretty sick. He couldn't help himself much less me. I think I was nudging him on that tour. We kind of make a joke, I drove him and he drove me around the world.
Triste: When was his famous "Sing like your damned self" comment? Was this after or before the tour?
Stacey Earle: It might have been after we came back. We were sitting round the table like you do and I was playing the guitar? He just walked past and said "Sing like your damn self".
Triste: So who did you sing like? Were you subconsciously imitating someone else?
Stacey Earle: Maybe I was, but not only that, but I was singing really low. I didn't know what my range was. I didn't know all the technical things and that's where my second husband Mark Stewart came into the picture about '91. I met him soon as I made the decision to stay in Nashville. And he then helped me to move my capo way up the guitar and showed me I could actually sing. Then I started to sing like I talk and that kind of came accidentally. So evidently there was a voice that was lost that I didn't know was there. It was my own. Maybe I was trying to correct myself too much because I'm pretty twangy in the way I talk. I've lived in Louisiana, Nashville... very Southern. Maybe I was fighting that I don't know.
Triste: You actually set up this songwriters night yourself. Wasn't that a brave step for someone who wasn't too experienced themselves in a place like Nashville where as you said every other waiter was a budding songwriter?
Stacey Earle: It might have been but it took off really well.
Triste: Was it an open mic or was it purely songwriting?
Stacey Earle: Purely songwriting and it was in order for me to get more stage time. Because in the songwriters things in Nashville you get to play two songs and you're off. I wanted people to play four. I didn't want it to be somewhere were only twenty something people sign up and I'd cut the list off. I'd stay there all night. If they wanted to stay all night then everyone would get to play and I'd never send anyone home heartbroken. And if they messed up, I would encourage them to start over. And if they weren't singing into the mic I'd show that how to do it. "Stay in the mike" here, "Get a little closer there", and teach them. So I kind of shared what I was wanting at the time and it became a little kind of community and it got to about 60 people who would come in a night and we all took care of each other and we watched each other grow.
Triste: Wasn't it a bit competitive in Nashville?
Stacey Earle: Yeh but Mark walked into the first one I did. and that's when I met him and he became my partner. We were really careful when we plugged someone in a guitar. We had a strum and we got a really great sound from them. We'd send them off with confidence. I did it two nights a week, eventually three nights a week. One at the Courtyard Cafe, the main one at Jack's Guitar Bar. I did two of them there. The big one, which was the original one was Wednesday Night Songwriters' Night. Tuesday Night was Tommy Tucker Sing For Your Supper and what I did was make a big pot of stew with chilli and if they sang their songs they got to eat for free. And that's a good thing for songwriters cos half of them are starving. So they kind of got a home-cooked meal.
Triste: Was it all country music being played? Or were people playing blues and folk too?
Stacey Earle: There was a great variety. Of course there was a lot of country as a lot of people were coming into town to be a country star. We heard some of the best and some of the worst although I don't think anyone ever saw the difference on my face because I knew that even if it was the worst I knew they were having the time of their lives that moment they were on stage.
Triste: Were there people you saw there who were as good as people who later made it and did you ever wonder why did person X not make it while person Y play stadia?
Stacey Earle: I pretty much spotted the ones who would make it - like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings; they came to the writers night and I knew that night that they'd be okay. And then I've seen some out there who will never be heard and that's heartbreaking.
Triste: Because you've got talent it doesn't necessarily mean you're going to make it. There are other factors involved as well.
Stacey Earle: There's only so much room on the rostrum. There's some great music in Nashville people will never hear and that's a shame. No-one probably would have heard of me if I didn't start my own record company. Mark and I decided we're going to get heard.
Triste: Why did you go for this DIY approach to recording? Was it to deliberately have more control and buck the trend of fitting into the mould of the typical Nashville airbrushed country act?
Stacey Earle: It was not decided that way. But there just wasn't really a home. Nashville did just not know what to do with what I was doing. And I wasn't willing to change it, and it wasn't a rebellion thing - I liked what I was doing. They liked what I was doing but they just didn't know how to market it. I had a lot of labels look at me and at the last moment they'd chicken out. Finally, I'd been in Nashville since I was 29 and I was ready for my songs to be heard. People would say to me at shows "Do you have a CD?" and I'd say no "I've been in Nashville nine years and I have no record deal". That's when I decided I'd make my own record. My husband and I went out and made it.
Triste: So this was mainly to sell after gigs.
Stacey Earle: The next thing we know a couple of radio stations played it and we had a couple of other stations call and we were packaging CDs and it just grew.
Triste: I was going to ask you how you managed to arrange the distribution. It's okay selling them after gigs but how do you get them into a wide enough series of shops?
Stacey Earle: It takes a lot of work. I won't tell anybody I don't want anybody to fantasise. Anybody can make a record. I and my husband put 16 hours a day at least emailing people, making phone-calls. I'm ready to do that cos I was a mother at 17 - this is the other half of my life. My kids are 20 and 17 now and now I have the time and now I want to learn and I want to learn something new. Now I'm not only performing my art I'm also learning a business thing. Everything seems to be really full right now and good.
Triste: And you seem to tour quite a lot.
Stacey Earle: We drive round with a laptop and a telephone and it takes the art out of it sometimes and it's not as romantic as an art can be can be. but I'm okay with it I'm ready to learn something. I'm not saying I cheated myself but there are some things you're going to be cheated on if you become a young parent. And that's why people should be careful - you've got to live first - but I wouldn't take it back, of course. Now we get the other end my kids are grown and I'm still young enough to do this.
Triste: Do you get enough radio airplay in the States?
Stacey Earle: In America we have a chart called the Americana - Gavin Reported. Well there's the home for my kind of music. Thank goodness they found the room on the dial to put such stations. It's basically adult listening. Americana's a very neat thing and it's still on the Billboard charts for Americana it did really well.
Triste: Was that before or after you got the distribution deal with E Squared?
Stacey Earle: No, but it was heading that way. The record was pretty stabilised as regards distribution. I'd already sold a lot of them over the Internet - the Internet is magic.
Triste: How important is your web site in spreading your name and reputation?
Stacey Earle: I answer all my emails and I get tons of it. But every fan helps, so I'm going to answer every mail. That's how it all got started. When I got the CD in my hand my Dad and I called ever radio station across the United States - American Gavin Reported. We're talking almost 400 radio stations emailed each one individually. We went to their websites and got their main promoter guy (programme director), we got each DJ that would play. So you'd get 400 times at least three addresses, which comes out at 1200, and we emailed each one individually and personally. It took us three days and three nights. "Hi, my name is Stacey Earle I have this CD out. I used to play with my brother Steve Earle..." I had to throw that in.
Triste: Did you regret that?
Stacey Earle: I could say I was Steve Earle's sister and send them a lousy CD and it would just get slammed. It's really funny and I 'd get some answers back through curiosity and they'd say it's a great CD and then I'd have others who would come back with "It's a great CD" but its nothing like your brothers'. Well of course. Steve's a boy and I'm a girl - we have totally different things to say. There's no comparing us.
Triste: Was the artwork changed?
Stacey Earle: No, the artwork was the same, the only difference was the logo was changed. And E Squared weren't the only company interested in distributing it - but they'd take care of it the best. I would have a little more hand into it and he's my brother and if they don't treat it right and I'm going to kick him in the shin and take it back.
Triste: How does it work now you're operating on a bigger scale?
Stacey Earle: You have to be disciplined and to take the money and put the money back into the company. Be prepared to live on very little bring all this money and spend it you're not going to have it for the next project. People keep on asking are you going to sign somebody else on? when I can see we can take care of Mark and myself right - we've every mistake we can make and learned from them. Then I might take someone else's art in my hands - but not till we know we can take care of them. I don't want to make the mistake that majors make. You don't sign an artist if you think you're going to drop them.
Triste: No you don't , but some record companies are very fashion conscious. Acts are picked up before they're ready, they're not nurtured and then they're dropped. The pop industry is very fickle.
Stacey Earle: It's the same even in Hollywood. There was a time when a star was a star they could dance they could sing they could do everything. Now everybody is very specialised.
Triste: And they want the come-back quickly. They're not prepared to wait two or three albums while an artist matures and learns their trade.
Stacey Earle: That's the good thing about my music. I plan on letting my music growing with me. As I grow grey hair I'm sure my lyrics will grow. I don't want to be out there doing songs that are younger than I am. I want to grow old gracefully. I want to grow with my audience.
Triste: So is Mick Jagger wrong in singing "Satisfaction" in his 50's?
Stacey Earle: No, because Steve will still be on the stage singing "Copperhead Road" when he's in his 80's. I'm not going to be writing songs that are not in my vein. There's an advantage too - Steve kicked off younger than I did. We all write from our own perspectives. I'm writing from my age right now and I'm old (laughs). No I'm not old, but I'm writing maturely. I'm writing like a 38 year old person would.
Triste: You worked as a staff writer too at one time. Is that more of a craft than writing your own songs?
Stacey Earle: That's an art in itself and I don't disrespect staff writers, it's just not for me. I tried it for years it's very industrial it's not from the heart as much.
Triste: I'm thinking of Goffin and King and the best of the Brill Building stuff.
Stacey Earle: They're great at it. It's just not my job. Steve tried it too. It's not Steve's job. He warned me of it he said "Stacey I know how you write it's not your job." I needed the money. What would happen is that I'd be writing songs I liked in the morning something I was really into then look at the clock and realise I should be at 10:10 writing right now and I'd be procrastinating getting later every day. Then I'd have to try and forget what I was writing for myself and sit in a room and try and write a hook or melody. But I have high respect for staff writers. There are some great songs which have come out.
Triste: They are well-crafted. Did you ever come up with a good melody and think I'll keep that for my own song?
Stacey Earle: I'm a good melody person. Towards the end of my writing contract I quit expressing lyrics as much. I'd just write the melody. I'd sit there with the guitar while they wrote the lyrics. And every now and then I'd throw my two cents in. It also helped it go a little more mainstream as I tend to try and get a little too tricky. It's really simple, but it's Nashville and they considered it too tricky and they were afraid to make the audience think. I think they underestimate their audience I think they insult them.
Triste: So it's lowest common denominator time?
Stacey Earle: My words are pretty simple but they hear some double meanings in there and that scares them. Actually, it's written very simple. I talk plain as day, my vocabulary only goes so far. I finished two weeks of ninth grade. I'm not Einstein but I've got a lot of common sense and that's how I got by in my life. I was street smart. That's one thing with my kids I always said that I wanted them to be educated and to they will go to college because I didn't. But every parent should hope and check that their child's got common sense and street wise because that's going to be how you survive when everything goes down the drain.
Triste: There are a lot of clever people, with academic qualifications who can't fix a tyre on their car or boil an egg. What's the point of higher mathematics if you can't mend a tyre?
Stacey Earle: You've got to know what make things tick.
Triste: Going back to the songwriting and the songs on the album there are a lot of songs written in the first person. Is there any temptation to write a song as a narrative in the third person.
Stacey Earle: No I pretty much tell 'em myself. It's kind of like my diary. It took me some time to realise that other people related to them. So when someone starts singing your song they're singing and talking about themselves and it becomes their song and I encourage them to take it. I don't say "Stacey ..."
Triste: But you do in the song "Show Me How" on the album.
Stacey Earle: And on that day I was feeling so.. not helpless, I wanted to feel helpless. I was one of those people who have to be everyone's mother, and it's my own fault and I don't know how to let go. When I rest is when I lay my head down at night. But I have those moments when I wish someone would come along and just take care of me for a change. You get so tired some days and that's how I felt that day. So that's the first song with my name in but people relate to the songs it's everyday life.
Triste: Isn't there a danger that writing songs with "I" and "me" all the time it gives people the impression that the songs are about you.
Stacey Earle: That's where Steve's great at writing his stories he's great storyteller and he's also an avid reader. My Dad's a great storyteller. Steve can tell a story and make the fish grow really fast. That's an art. I write what I feel.
Triste: But it's not all true is it? Is it confessional? Some people can write "I" and mean someone else.
Stacey Earle: They are confessional. The songs are written about what happened that day - the day I wrote it. They are all very true. I've cried on my guitar more times than I want.
Triste: How much do people identify themselves in your songs?
Stacey Earle: I encourage them . I say take it home make it yours. Even the ones which make people cry they say it's a good cry and I needed to. "Just Another Day" that's the one what usually launches parents over the end at shows. One lady had to leave and it made me feel worse than ever because I'd forgotten about the double meaning. It's about my son leaving home and going for college and his presence was gone. This woman had lost her child. Her husband came up afterwards and shook my hand and said it was a wonderful show and said I'm sorry my wife had to leave during "Just Another Day" but she just couldn't take it we've lost our daughter. I said "Oh God I'm sorry" and he said "No. She hangs on to that song." So I had to look at it that way. The second time that song hit me was standing on a stage in Denver, Colorado, two months after our big school shooting in Denver, I was standing there when it hit me. Why am I singing this song here. I'm going to ruin somebody's day. Please don't let there be a victim family here, but the people who came up, and they'd be crying, and they'd thank me cos you've got to cry. I needed a place to release them. I always said I'd take my songs and dump them in the soundhole of my guitar. and of all of a sudden they come out. But you also hear my happy moments, my celebrating moments. Everybody's got emotions.
Triste: What's it like singing on stage with your husband. Sometime you might be singing a love song and you'd be mad with him. It was like the infamous final tour of Richard and Linda Thompson where their eyes are shooting daggers at each other.
Stacey Earle: We've been through a lot together. We were together right at the height of Steve's illness we were then only family there. We endured a lot. Mark took on a family - the two boys and me - I don't think we could let it get to that point where it affects us on stage because music is as much as part of his life as it is mine. He has his own thing. He's first been on stage since he was 12 years old. But we do have our arguments on the road. But when it comes to the stage I think that becomes the sweet reward. We've worked all day driving, we've been pushing CDs through the mail, we work 16 hours a day sometime, I've got a laptop and it's full of paperwork. I've got to be calling somebody tomorrow to make sure they've got their records in. I've got to make sure that my shipments to each meeting has arrived. I doubt we'd reach the stage were we'd argue on stage - finally that's the sweet reward after all the hard work. We'd be having so much fun. We always relate to the songs. Mark and I've been playing together for seven years and I feel bad because he really takes a licking because he's an incredible artist himself. He shoved himself aside to work with me, and then Steve stole him for three years, and he shoved himself aside to work with Steve, and shoved his music aside to work this record. I think what we're going to do when Mark's record comes out is to travel together. At this point I'm 38 and he's three years younger. If we're going to do this the rest of our lives we're going to do it together and if he's in Germany and I'm in the UK we can't have a marriage. That's tough - some people can pull it off, but check the statistics - the odds aren't good when you get two artists in the family. So we're going to hang together and possibly play good together. Complement each other - "nice chops tonight".
Triste: There seems to be an obsession, if that's not too much a strong word with sleep dreams waking up etc. Why?
Stacey Earle: I'm a big day-dreamer. When I was at school my parents would say "oh, she must have a learning disability". They thought I couldn't learn. What it was I was daydreaming. I was where I wanted to be, thank you. I think dreams are everything.
Triste: Another preoccupation is losing time and wasting time. Is that another result of your second chance at 38?
Stacey Earle: Exactly. With a second chance I know what I've been dealt in this world. And you're either going to deal with what you were dealt or you're not - No matter how bad things get. You can sit around and be pissy about things, but I'm one of those people who can turn around anything. The worst around of times I can turn it into a positive - anybody can. My home could blow away tomorrow and I'd find something good about it. It takes dreaming to do that. I've had some hard times. People would say oh Steve Earle and she's in this big musical rich family - it's not. We were a middle class family, Steve made some money, but he lost a lot in his addiction, I've stood in food stamp lines. I wasn't too proud to. I knew I had two children at home. I waited tables two nights a week. Two jobs I had two of them going. If I didn't have dreams I would have had nothing. A lot of it was just.... but then can you make a dream happen?
Triste: Did it get to the situation where you were kind of knocked down and then you had to dust yourself down and pick yourself up again?
Stacey Earle: I've actually had many times where you actually lay down on the couch and you get that depression and just want to sleep. I've stood up and said "Don't do that". Stand up make it happen or you'll just lay here and an hour will go by and then a day goes by. And if you don't at least try it you won't know if it will happen. You going to get knocked down every once in a while - so you try another route. That's how I do it.
Triste: Do you enjoy being on stage now? I know you said at first it was a big stage.
Stacey Earle: The stage was never a problem it was always the reward. It's always been comfortable for me.
Triste: But some major artists have been playing 25 years still get stage fright throwing up etc.
Stacey Earle: I have the other butterflies. I've hyperventilated once on stage and I think it was because I was trying to do too much before the show. But I get the good kind of butterflies - that's a rollercoaster and that's the way it's always been. I'm not afraid of any stage.
Triste: How do you deal with criticism of your music?
Stacey Earle: The record has been reviewed several times and I've had my heart guard on waiting for someone to crush it and it hasn't happened yet. I'm sure it will eventually. I think that people relate to it. What are you going to hack up? Reality? The production? I spent $4000 on the record I'm not trying to throw something out and say here's a perfect big budget Nashville recording. I spent $4000 on a record. You can hear it. It's as clear as a bell. It was done in one-take. It's obvious. It's human, right down to the errors in it - I know what they are but nobody else seems to be able to catch 'em. But what is it to compare it to. It's not a $200,000 or $1m record made by MCA or RCA whatever. It's a $4000 Stacey Earle record!
Triste: What about the hecklers in small bars where people haven't come along to see you play?
Stacey Earle: Mark and I, when we wanted to pick up extra money, would go and play a lot in Parksville, Tennessee - because we could pick up an extra $100 - it's a college town. He would belt out some cover tunes and I would do some originals and there'd be plenty of noise but there'd always be a little handful of people watching and it never affected me, it never bugged me. Mark would get tired of it. Me, I'd just sing louder and it doesn't bug me.
Triste: What was this comment about not trusting monitors?
Stacey Earle: What I said was when I was teaching people on writers' nights they would get up there and hear, specially at Jack's Guitar Bar, real tinny cheap monitors I would have to teach them to trust the house. I'd say you might sound really crummy right here, but sing as beautiful as you can, because I promise you from the house you'll sound really beautiful. I would actually stand up at the monitor with these people if they wanted a lesson and I would sing into it and say do you hear that, now go out into the house and listen to me sing. We're taking care of it. You've got to learn to trust your house man. That's the number one rule - when you go into a venue, don't upset the sound man. Because he's got a little button on his desk which is called "you suck" which makes you sound terrible. But you do have to learn to sing without a monitor. What are you going to do if you're in the middle of a show and your monitor goes down? Are you going to stop playing? I don't think so. You've got to know your songs by feel. That's an example of an argument Mark and I had on stage once - he said he couldn't hear the monitor and I said "You should know the songs by now - just play". He says I get taken advantage a lot in a venue because the soundman will say, "Does that sound good" and I'll go "Fine". I'll take anything. But I know my songs and I trust they'll sound great in the house. But it is nice though when you can get as close as possible to what everyone else is hearing in the house. Because then you're going to have this confidence and you are going to do your best shows. You're going to enjoy it and we got to have fun too. That's the moment you've been waiting for. It's not the money - it's getting to play and then hearing that (she claps her hands).
Triste: Do you actually get to see any of these places when you're on tour or is it bus, hotel and stage?
Stacey Earle: Because I started late in life in the music industry we've got to make up a lot of lost time and we tour hard. I've been on the road for six months solid and I'm booked solid - with just two weeks off to make a new record - until April 2000.
Triste: The audiences here are they different from the USA?
Stacey Earle: They've been great - very warmly receptive. Mark was a little worried that I might talk too fast and that people would miss something I was saying. It's kind of new territory. There's a big variety of ages, but the same type of people. I could take this American woman and an English woman and they'd come up and say the same things and relate to the same song. There's only so many different flavours.
Triste: Were any of the songs written five or six years ago, or were some of the written specially for the album?
Stacey Earle: There was one of the album which was written a few weeks before the album, but I've got a big back catalogue of songs, but my new record will have some new stuff on it, but I'll keep grabbing to the back - maybe go it half and half. I'll have to reach back and put some of that on the record and I'll have to have a little something new - cos I like playing something new. But the audience want to hear their favourite songs. I think there was one show were I realised that we didn't play one song off Simple Gearle we played all new songs.
Triste: The CD album's got two named "sides" on it. Why?
Stacey Earle: Because I was cheated out of vinyl. Think about it. We're not getting to make vinyl. I love vinyl. There are some things you gain with CDs - efficiency, sound quality, life expectancy. But there are things we lost like the sequencing of a record is half of it - how your ears are going to take it in. Well that flipping of a record gave you a second chance. A and B gives you a chance to start over. You listen from a CD top to bottom - it 's got to be pretty darned good to keep you.
Triste: Most CD albums are too long nowadays anyway.
Stacey Earle: At least you can listen to one side of the record. You can lie on the couch or your bed and then you'd hear that hiss as the needle bumped off the paper at the end. Well my CD actually does this same. It's an old Rubber Soul record and we took a Radio Shack record player and put the needle down on that hiss and held a microphone to it. That's what it is. An old beat-up Rubber Soul record!