JAZZ FEST: Steve Earle’s personal chordsSteve Earle has logged a lot of miles throughout his career, but it’s the path between his head and his heart that’s gotten the most wear and tear the last few years. Over his turbulent career, the outspoken singer/songwriter has cultivated a reputation as equal parts rebel, sage, activist and recovering addict. Musically his songs have bridged a multitude of genres — mostly folk, country and bluegrass — but it’s what he does with words that’s made him an iconic, and occasionally controversial, pop-culture figure.
Now, at 56 years old, Earle has made his most personal art yet. Three years ago, amidst one of the most artistically demanding moments of his life — writing both a book and a new album — his father died. The two works ended up sharing the same title, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, borrowed from Hank Williams’ famously last-recorded song and both explore themes of spirituality and mortality. They are snapshots of his pragmatic tenderness, and hauntingly beautiful in their own fractured ways. In advance of his headlining gig at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, Earle spoke candidly with WE about his relationship with his dad, his recovery process, getting in Ice-T’s face and his love of Harry Potter books.
You can really feel the energy on the new album.
Thanks. There’s something to be said for just getting some guys together and playin’ with a few microphones in front of them and flipping the machine on. It used to be all records were made that way. Most of my records have been made close to that way, but this is maybe the livest ever, you know. Everybody was up in the studio playin’ at one time.
The album took you quite a while to write, whereas the recording time was really short.
Well, it was just, it was written over a period of three years. You know, I was writing a book too and I sort of had the luxury of taking three years to write it, whereas normally I’m like — my last record [Townes] was a record of somebody else’s songs [Townes Van Zandt], so that had a lot to do with it. This stuff went back to like, the first two songs I wrote for Joan Baez’s record, “God is God” and “I Am a Wanderer” and then I just kept writing. There was one other song which was written for another project. “Lonely Are the Free” was written for a film called Leaves of Grass that Tim Blake Nelson wrote and directed. I was in it, so I wrote that and recorded a different version because it had to be done, so I just did it on my ProTools rig. Then I re-recorded it for this record because I liked the song and thought I could push it a little further. But everything was sort of wrapped around finishing the book, and then when I got the book finished, I started concentrating on the record again; trying to figure out what I was going to do about recording it and tracked T Bone [Burnett] down. I recorded “The City” in May separate from the other tracks because it had to be ready for the last episode of Treme. So T Bone flew in for that and Alan Toussaint wrote the trombone part. It’s all New Orleans guys on that except for Jay, who did play drums. And then the rest of it was made in five days. I took a little longer to mix, but I didn’t overdub any vocals, it’s all pretty much live. The only vocal I replaced is where I punched in one line where I sang an incorrect lyric.
The album and the book share the same title. Was it your intention that one would inform the other, or was it accidental?
It was accidental. The book was always I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. I didn’t name the record that until — I recorded the song, but I just sort of did it on a whim and thought, ‘well, we can maybe use it for an extra track,’ you know, the Hank Williams song. But I didn’t decide until T Bone and I were mixing and we made the first sequence of the record, which ended up being the one we used, and sat back and listened to it and it just dawned on me that the songs were kind of about the same things that the book’s about, when it comes to the big theme stuff. Spirituality and mortality as it relates to spirituality and vice versa. And mortality not as necessarily a morbid or negative thing, but just a part of life. My dad died three years ago and that has a lot to do with it. Between the book — well, the last half of the book which was written since he died — and all the songs on this record, I think I made the only art I could have made. Looking back at it now, I made the only art I could have made following my father’s death.
Did you have a lot of chance to reflect on your relationship?
We were pretty close. He didn’t quite understand why I’d moved to New York. My mom and dad moved to Tennessee to be near me and my sister, Stacey [also a musician], she lives in Nashville, too. And, my brother had moved there because he was my tour manager for a long time. So, they just had a lot of kids who lived there and my mom’s from there originally, and they moved to Tennessee like, 13 or 14 years ago. He didn’t quite understand why I felt the need to go to New York. I just need to go to New York. Alison [Moorer, also a singer and a part of Earle’s band] and I got married and we just kinda wanted a place where neither one of us had any history, have a little bit more time to ourselves, and just wanted a place to start fresh. I don’t regret that. I understand why it upset him a little bit, but other than that we got along fine.
Normally when kids leave home at 18 their parents get a little upset. I like that even leaving home much later in life, they still feel a little resentment. That’s sweet.
I left home when I was 16, but I was pretty close to my family. We’re a big, close family. It took a hit when my dad died and it hasn’t quite recovered, you know? Everybody goes through this process differently. My brothers and sisters didn’t necessarily see this the same way I did. I hated seeing him the way he was the last couple years of his life. He died of emphysema and congestive heart failure. He struggled for breath every day and couldn’t walk across the room. He was kind of a wanderer, he liked trips and to go for walks and it was just a really low quality way for him to live. I was relieved, I have to admit, I was relieved when he finally passed away. For him, not seeing him have to struggle for breath anymore.
As you mentioned, one of the album’s themes is spirituality. Do you identify with a particular ideology?
Uh, my spirituality’s pretty simple. The closest thing I have to a spiritual system — I don’t belong to any church. I’m not Christian, I’m not a Muslim, but I do believe in God. I don’t think that Christians are wrong, they’re just gettin’ to God differently than I do. I hope they think that about me, but if they don’t, I’m okay with that too. I just believe there’s a God and it ain’t me, and that’s about as far as I’ve gotten. It’s all in the song [“God is God”].
Is your spirituality part of your recovery process?
Sure it is, because my spiritual system is a 12-step program. That’s my spiritual practice, because I still go to meetings and call my sponsor and I work steps. That’s what I do.
It’s fascinating to me to see people who don’t maybe have that spiritual anchor and go through 12 steps anyways.
I think it works fine. I didn’t have any aversion to it, but I’ve seen people who do. This is my only spiritual system. I don’t practice any religion, I meditate, but I kinda learned to do that since I got clean.
This likely comes up in every interview, and I don’t think it’s always a salacious, gossipy thing when people ask you about your addiction issues. Rather, it’s fascinating and hopeful to talk about getting clean. Are you tired of talking about it, though?
Well, I get kinda tired of talking about it sometimes, but I don’t get tired of talking about it to people who need a program. There’s lots of restrictions about how much I can talk about it within this situation, you know. There are traditions that state I can only go so far talking about it in press, radio or films or TV, any kind of media stuff. And there’s reasons for that. It’s about the anonymity more than anything else. But, anonymity to me has never really been about me... Most people know I’m an addict and most people know I’m in recovery. If anybody doubts I’m in recovery — you’ll know when I stop going to meetings. You’ll start reading about me in the paper again.
How has your songwriting narrative changed over the years? People associate you with having such an interesting life, so what stories are interesting to you?
I don’t know. I like Harry Potter books. I love’em! I’ve been in mourning ever since they ended. I grew up reading Tolkien and that kind of stuff. I read a lot of hardcore hipster literature, but I think J.K. Rowling’s a great storyteller. I found out about those books because I lived with a woman who had a 10-year-old girl, and when Azkaban came out, I took her when they opened up the boxes at midnight and I saw kids lined up around an entire mall to buy a book, which I found pretty amazing. So I thought, ‘I must be missing something here’ and I backtracked and bought the rest of them. I’m still heartbroken they’re finished. (Laughs)
I heard rumours today that there might be more Potter on the way.
Really?! That’s interesting. That made my whole day.
Your acting career has taken off in the last few years. Eric Overmyer [The Wire, Treme] came to Vancouver last year and listening to him talk about characterization was amazing. How has working within TV affected you as a songwriter?
As an actor, I’ve never said any words that weren’t written by David Simon, Eric Overmyer, Richard Prize or Tim Blake Nelson. When you read words written by people like that, you get to be a better writer. It’s helped me a lot as a writer and in all the stuff that I do. I had a blast doing The Wire and I’ve had a blast doing Treme. And I get called for stuff and I go out and read for parts. I actually like television, because I think some of the best stuff being written today is for television.
What kind of parts do you get to read for?
Well, when Simon called me about the character in Treme, he said, ‘OK, you’ve been officially typecast.’ It is very similar to my character on The Wire. It’s a mentor figure. But in my one feature, the Tim Blake Nelson movie, I was a bad guy. I was the bad guy. I’m readin’ for a thing where I’m a villain in a couple of days, just on tape, so that’s fun to do, because I haven’t done much of it. I’ve been good guys far more. I did do a Law & Order: SVU where I played kind of a hippie-dippy teacher in Riker’s Island. It was a really fun scene that got cut up and didn’t make that much sense in the show. The way the scene was originally written, I got into Ice-T’s face and quoted Tupac and he backs me down. But Tupac’s estate wouldn’t clear the lyrics, so they had to cut that part out. That’s why I did it, because that scene was hilarious, but getting to do different things is — I’m gonna read for my first real, live sociopath in a day or two. I’m looking forward to that.
Steve Earle performs with the Dukes (and Duchesses) featuring Allison Moorer at The Centre on Sunday, June 26, 8pm. Tickets $48 from Ticketmaster.