INTERVIEW- Slaid! Ditching roots for pop philosophy


Cleaves: "I want to take a stab at being more relevant to the general culture, instead of stuck in a dusty museum. That's  what I fear for folk music."


Slaid Cleaves paid his dues as an overlooked member of Austin's cramped music scene for about decade, at one point selling his body to science to make ends meet– but that was before his alluring fusion of Guthrie and Springsteen eventually paid off.

With 2000's Broke Down, he emerged as the new prince of drawl-free Texan singer-songwriters, and the years in between have been so kind to him that he admits he's been riding its momentum ever since. But that's all about to change.

The new album he's working on has its roots in pop music such as U2 and REM, he says. While he's not aping those bands, he unabashedly admits the new album will have a "more contemporary feel."

The Hook: You consider this a good thing?

Slaid Cleaves: It's partly just creative restlessness. I feel like I've been making these Americana records for 15 years now, and I feel pressure on myself just to try some new things. And also, the Americana world is kind of a ghetto– there's a glass ceiling.

The Hook: When did you start to feel that way?

Slaid Cleaves: I felt this way more or less for 10 years. Ten years ago when I was struggling hard to find an audience, I was working hard on my writing, and the result was Broke Down, which made all my dreams come true. So I just coasted for a while, and it was wonderful, but the last couple of years I've felt kind of stagnated, and it's been a good thing. It's made me creative and hungry.

The Hook: "Americana" can be construed as a flavor of pop forms and structures, though. Are they really that different?

Slaid Cleaves: Well, there's less narrative storytelling in this new record. Musically, there's less of a honky tonk country beat and more piano– and the chord progressions are a little more contemporary.

The Hook: Wait– "story songs?" I know you love to do them and all, but do they really get their own class in your head?

Slaid Cleaves: Yeah, I think so. You have this pile of information that you want to process into a matrix of rhyming lines and verses and choruses. The lyrical songs are more nebulous, more soul-searching.

The Hook: A matrix? That seems very mathematical.

Slaid Cleaves: It's the nerd in me. I was a little science geek in high school. That only works for those story songs. If there's a story, there's a character and some action that needs to be exposed– expository writing, you could call it– but it has to fit into a certain meter and rhyme and verse and chorus structure. So yeah, that's exactly how I think about those songs.

The Hook: Are the more lyrical songs more fulfilling as a result, since they're not built around a matrix?

Slaid Cleaves: They are in this instance. They're going to be the ones that I'm still doing 10 years from now.

The Hook: Are there cases where the steps you have to take to fit an idea into the matrix do a disservice to the story behind it?

Slaid Cleaves: Yeah, it's a bit of a trade off. That's creative license. Some of the story songs I've written, I've had to make stuff up so the song works. But I'm not making up stuff to make the song more interesting– the interesting stuff is the drama of it or the irony or the heroism.

The Hook: What did you draw on personally in order to come up with the lyrical songs?

Slaid Cleaves: Oh, some pretty heavy stuff. Issues of mortality and failure in life and marriage and the way relationships change over the years. It has a darker, kind of "twilight years" edge to it.

The Hook: Do you discuss the confessional content with the people you write about? Do the songs ever form a weird emotional feedback loop and go back and affect the relationships?

Slaid Cleaves: Well, that's an issue on this record, because there is definitely some real-life inspiration, and the people around me that I love have made their way into these songs. It's always been an issue here and there, but more so on this record. There will be some reckoning.

The Hook: Are you bracing yourself at all for the new record because your audience will have more insight into what makes you tick?

Slaid Cleaves: I hadn't thought about it that way before. Yeah, maybe.

The Hook: For example, did you have to obscure some things in order to feel comfortable sharing them with your audience?

Slaid Cleaves: Yeah. That has been an issue on these songs for sure, and it's been an issue over the years. My wife cried when she heard one of the songs.

The Hook: Can the same content survive in either format, or is pop more inherently confessional than roots music?

Slaid Cleaves: Folk songs can be intensely moving on a personal level, but you're watching or listening to someone else go through something. But that's a deep philosophical thing, the difference between folk and pop, and I don't feel equipped to expound on that right now. The more I think about it, the more confused I get.

The Hook: There are plenty of people who would be all too happy to sling hard-line definitions at this question.

Slaid Cleaves: I always default on the folk/pop thing that folk is homemade and pop music is mass produced. Or pop music is just folk music that makes money all of a sudden. It can be stylistically the same, but if it sells a million copies, it's not folk music anymore.

The Hook: So when you say you want to make pop music, in which sense do you mean that?

Slaid Cleaves: In the sense of selling a million records.

Slaid Cleaves performs at Gravity Lounge on May 9. $20, 8pm.