ďLucas' music is as ethereal as it is grounded in tradition. The melodies here can be complex, but the harmonies are as sweet as those found in the Appalachian mountains.Ē
These were a few of the words Americana UKís Warren Wheeler recently used to describe Indiana-born Austin Lucasí third full length soloalbum, Somebody Loves You. An album which has not only received one of those rare 10 out of 10 reviews, but also helps to set a new mark for the wave of alt.country-artists currently working hard to bring the style back to its orignal form and intent Ė country music played with the ferocity of punk and disregard of any set rules or boundaries.
In this interview, Americana UK speaks to our new American hero about his songwriting, his old man, the years he spent playing in various punk bands and why he came back to country music - I just got tired of all the noise, he says.
Interview by Soren McGuire
Are you surprised by the amount of positive attention Somebody Loves has received since it came out?
Would I sound like an asshole if I said no?
Well, the thing is, Iím always surprised when something isnít received well. I put so much time into these things. I canít say that I think everyoneís going to like it, cause I would be a fool if I did so, but at the same time, you put so much time into making these albums that you have to believe in it. And when I was writing these songs, I truly felt like they were the best I had ever written. And when we were recording the album, I did believe it was coming out the best of any record I had ever done.
What convinced you that this would be your best work to date?
Part of it, I think, is due to the fact that I did all the guitar and vocals together, live. Then we added the banjo, bass, fiddle, stuff like that, to make it sound more like the way it would sound if I was performing it live, as apposed to this sterile studio-recorded sound.
And the songwriting?
I had a really bad year and I was feeling things that I hadnít felt in a really long time. I had just come out of a three-year relationship, so I was content and a little bit complacent. In some ways that affected my songwriting, and when I had all this big emotional stuff happening to me, I was able to dig into these feelings for the first time in a couple of years. In the three years since I had last written songs in this vein, I had grown a lot emotionally and was looking at things in another way than I had as a younger man. †Things were no longer as black and white as they had been when I was 21. I was beginning to see the grey shading in between and that was why I was feeling that I was making a much more accomplished body of work. That was my personal triumph, being able not to look at things in this two-dimensional light anymore. The reason why Iím so happy about the songs is not necessarily because I like the way I put together the songs but more because of the revolutions I could make, and how much of a different person I had become from writing these songs.
You come from what you describe yourself as a radical left political background. But your songs are rarely political. Why is this?
Iím not exactly sure who said this, but Iíve heard that it pays to write about something you know. I took that to heart and I feel like the thing I know, is how I interact personally with the people around me and the way I feel about the people around me. Iíve been known to write broader and more political songs, but they take a backseat to the songs about the way I feel about people around me.
Iíve seen your music described as depressing music. But it doesnít really sound that depressing, does it?
The one thing I like to do is take something really depressing and give it a melody that doesnít seem depressing. As an example, the song ĎGo Westí from the album, Somebody Loves You, can be terribly depressing. When you lose somebody you consider to be your true love and youíve sacrificed a lot to be with this person, that can really fuck you up emotionally. But that song is not about that. Itís about †how thereís goodness and how life goes on even through all that stuff. Before the album came out, there was a demo version of Go West that people really latched on to. But then the album version came out and it had my sister singing, it had all the fiddles and the full band, and people felt I had taken something away from that song. But I think quite the opposite. With the stripped down version, I think people get lost in the bad aspects of the song. And that was the thing I wanted with this triumphant fiddle and my sister singing Ė I wanted the light to shine. Itís not a sombre song.
Did your songwriting change after you began playing more country and folk again after having been in punk for so long?
Not so much. The form is different, but my outlook on how a song should be put together and how lyrics should be constructed, is still very much the same. I really have this particular way of how I want everything to sound. Itís like poetry Ė I want it to flow in a certain way, regardless of how the actual music sounds. Iíve always had that approach to writing lyrics throughout my entire history in music.
Do you think you master the art of song writing to a degree where youíve given thought to writing for other people? Maybe a quick trip down to Nashville?
I donít know. I think there are times in my life where I like to think so. But nobodyís knocking on my door wanting to sing my songs, if you know what I mean? But I think Iím good at my specialised version of what I do. What I do is very specialised to me, but that doesnít mean that anyone else could sing the songs that I write or even have the desire to sing the songs I write. I think to be able to have what you call a masterhood of songwriting, I think you need to be able to write a multitude of different types of songs. Someond like my father can cover pretty much any style of music when he writes songs. I have a few tricks, but I really donít have that much stuff that Iím capable of doing. But if you like what I do, it might seem that Iím good at it, but as far as Nashvilleís concerned, I really doubt that Music Row would have any interest in my songs.
Did your father (producer and songwriter Bob Lucas, who has written songs for, among other, Alison Krauss) teach you anything about song writing?
Like if he sat me down at the table and told me ďthis is how you write a songĒ...?
No. Never. He never even really taught me to play anything on the guitar. My brother actually taught me my first three chords and then I figured it out from there. But Iíve learned a lot from mimicking my dad. Iíve ripped him off. So Iíve definitely learned a lot from watching him, but he never told me how to do things. I always knew how I wanted my the chorus to be bigger than the verses, you know, specific ideas of how I felt a song should flow. Itís very standard, I think. A lot of people are using the same techniques as I am in a lot of ways. Everything I did up until a couple of years ago, I felt I had invented. I knew so little about playing the guitar and writing songs. I go through my back catalogue now and I go ďyupÖI was listening to that record at that timeĒ, if you know what I mean?
There must have been a lot of music in your childhood?
My parents split up when I was six, and I lived with my mom. So I wasnít actually brought up in a house with my father, but I was with him as much as I possibly could. I would go out on the road with him, so I still have that in me. And also, they put me in a choir, the Indiana University Childrenís Choir, to do opera and all that stuff. It was kind of against my will, but it meant that I had music in me from an early age. My first memory from before they split up was waking up in the middle of my dad rehearsing with his band in our living room.
Whatís your musical relationship like with your father today?
We just get together and play. We played together in Columbus, Ohio a couple of nights ago. Him and my sister came out to play. We rehearsed for about fifteen minutes, talked about which songs we needed to go over and went over them. Then we just got on stage and did it. People always say that thereís something about families playing together and I really think thatís true. I can sing with my dad and my sister in a way that I canít sing with anyone else. The way I play with them is so much more logged in. Thereís a feeling there you can only have in a unit bound together by blood.
How much did country music mean to you during your years of playing punk music?
Iíve continued to listen to country music and folk throughout my life. I was never the kind of person who would say ďI hate country musicĒ when I was playing punk. I donít get when people do that. There was always stuff I liked. Iíve been listening to Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson all though my entire life. Especially in my teenage years when I was really into punk, that stuff was something I also really liked, because of this rebel-mentality. I latched on to it immediately. And this was 16 years ago, you know. I just didnít know how express myself musically with it. I had always wanted to do something with it, I just wasnít ready until I turned 20.
What made you ďcome backĒ to country music?
I was tired of the noise. I just got really tired of the noise. That was it.
By the looks of it, there seems to be a growing number of bands bridging together punk and country. Artists like Lucero, Two Cow Garage, Drag The River, Chuck Ragan and Tim Barry are all playing country like it was punk Ė or the other way around. Where do you see the common ground between punk and country?
I donít really see anything but common ground. Theyíre linked together by the fact that theyíre both folk music. They both come from real genuine places. Obviously country music comes from traditional music, and traditional music is the peopleís music. Classical music was the aristocracy and country music was music people shared with each other. A lot of it was in protest, very subversive, and a lot of these songs had been passed down from when people werenít even allowed to sing or write. This kind of spirit that they embody is closely linked to what punk music is. Punk music is just another form of that kind of music. Itís about the daily problems of the people and the struggles we have. Not just our own but also global struggles. And thatís why country music is so appealing to people from a punk rock background. And you got to remember, the majority of my contemporaries, the people I hang out with Ė Drag The River, Lucero, Chuck Ragan, Tim Barry Ė we all grew up listening to country music. None of us are from New York City, we all grew up in the South or the Midwest, listening to country music. This is something thatís been in our lives forever. Just earlier today I was reading about this guy who was complaining about how Chuck Ragan and Tim Barry pretended to be the salt of the earth and how it was all just an image, and I was thinking ďyou got to be fucking kidding meĒ. This is not an image. Chuck Ragan wears work boots because heís a fuckin carpenter. The people who are really good at this and getting a lot of recognition are people who are natural. The are hundred of bands who have been on the punk scene whoís now playing alternative country. Country has influenced the punk scene since the beginning. This is nothing new, itís been going on for ages. People were talking about the same stuff in the 80ís and 90ís with bands like Uncle Tupelo and Slobberbone.† Itís just something thatís beginning to get some attention again.
Austin Lucasí Somebody Loves You is out now on Suburban Home/Vinyl Collective. For more info, go to myspace.com/austinlucas1 or suburbanhomerecords.com