Campfire Tales: the Sturgill Simpson interview
You'd be hard pressed to have guessed that a 36 year old guy from Kentucky would turn out to be 2014’s breakthrough country music artist, but that’s the scenario that’s played out over recent months. The unassuming Sturgill Simpson has been the talk of the town in Nashville - and beyond - after the release of his second record, the brilliant Metamodern Sounds In Country Music.
At the end of his last trip to the UK - he’s due back for the fourth time this year next week - we had the chance to chat with the man himself as he travelled to Sheffield for a show. Despite his lack of love for the limelight he’s happy to spend time chatting - “I’ve nowhere to be for the next four hours except this passenger seat, so have at it!”
After a typically British warm up chat about the weather (“I felt like I’d landed in Nashville, this [the weather] is just crazy! I didn’t pack properly at all for this, this is freakish right?”) we get on to the quick turnaround time between his debut High Top Mountain and Metamodern… in the UK. “Once Tom [head honcho at Loose Music, Sturgill’s UK label] heard it I guess he didn’t want to be behind, so we said let's just put it out the same time as in the States. Not a lot of labels would do that, so it was very kind and considerate of him to put out two albums in three months in the UK. The next one won’t be quite as soon.”
For Sturgill though the real timeline has been eighteen months. “The first one came out in the States in June of 2013, and we went on the road and toured that pretty much through the summer and fall. I’d put a road band together so I had a bunch of new songs that I was testing out. We came off the road on October 31st of last year and went into the studio November 1st. So they were both recorded in the same year but it wasn’t planned like that.” Lightening quick then? “Yeah! The boys and I had managed to knock out the second record in about four days.”
Going professional at 34 means that the Kentucky native is “sittin’ on a mountain of songs” written over a number of years. “I’ve always written, even though I’ve never pursued any ambitious approach towards this as a career until last year.” Despite this back catalogue, Metamodern… is made up of songs “Written on the spot whilst we were recording, then kinda combing through them and deciding whether it was something worth puttin’ out to the world or not.” And Simpson’s not finished there - “I feel like I’m really just beginning to learn who I am as a writer so it’s the new stuff that I’m interested in.”
The overwhelmingly positive reviews and awards (Simpson just picked up the Emerging Artist of the Year at AmericanaFest) that Metamodern… has received is all the more surprising as the themes aren’t your typical country fare. In these days of bro-country songs thanking Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawkings in your liner notes is pretty different. “When it came time to write the second one, I couldn’t get excited about writing a bunch of drinking songs again. It’s just not a place I live in anymore. I wrote about what was inspiring me at the time; my wife basically just said “You need to get all this outta your system. Maybe just write some songs about it,” and honestly it was one of the more truly inspired collection of songs I’ve ever written. I’m very, very proud of the record.” Being different wasn’t the point though, doing “something honest” was.
And the reception it’s received was the last thing on his mind. “Once we finished it, my producer Dave and I both honestly thought this’d be the end of my career, ‘cause no label is gonna touch this, you know? And a lot of traditional country fans won’t be into it.” More than anything it seems the reaction to the feel of the album is unexpected. “I honestly don’t feel it’s quite as groundbreaking as everybody’s goin’ on about. I mention a few illicit substances here and there but it’s kinda funny to me that that's so shocking in 2014.”
The background to Metamodern... is his stunning debut High Top Mountain which made the singer the great white hope of country music, which “Wasn’t unexpected, I knew that would happen. I set out to make a very traditional record [the first time round] so I kinda expected some of that. It doesn’t bother me.” Sometimes an artist has to go accessible early on to get the opportunity to make more music. “I feel like I just cleared my throat [with the first record] and in the States I have my own record label. I had the realisation that I can write and record anything I want. I don’t have to check it with anyone or answer to anybody.”
Simpson takes a pragmatic view to starting his own record label. “If you sign with a label essentially you’re going into debt, and at the same time signing away all your rights and your music - and most of your publishing - in exchange for a small loan. If I’m gonna go into debt, I might as well go into debt myself, and it might be a longer harder road but it will also be a more rewarding one if it works. And I’ll know that it was honest.” Makes sense right? But even that decision was influenced by his own music, initially by the fact Simpson thought it was “just so unapologetically country” that the Nashville labels “weren’t gonna touch it”. Then second time round it felt too far the other way. “With 'Metamodern', if I had taken that album into any label they woulda laughed in my face as soon as they heard reptile aliens and that kinda thing.” And in future you might see other artists signed to High Top Mountain Records. “Yeah! Absolutely! That’d be a dream come true.”
Apart from the record it seems that everyone wants to talk to Simpson about mainstream country, or rather look to Simpson to bash mainstream country. “The reason I’m always so deflective of that in the interviews I guess we’re referencing is that it didn’t come up in that light. It felt like I was almost being baited to kind of talk trash. And that’s something that I just don’t have any interest in.” Whilst it’s been good for press coverage so far the man himself sees is as “just a big distraction, I gotta tell you man I’ve spent a thousand times more of my life talking about the record than I did writing it!”
Even though this is his second album it feels as though no one was listening first time round “Last year none of this was going on, a lot of the outlets in the States, that’re wanting to talk now, they just completely ignored the first album. The record [Metamodern…] only came out in May and there’s been this media onslaught and this hype; I don’t really know how I feel about it yet as it’s so new and fresh, I’m just trying to stay focused on making music.”
Happily his pre-music life has helped prepare him for some of the challenges running your own business and leading a band throws at him. “I had a job for about four years before I moved to Nashville working for Union Pacific Railroad. I started out as a conductor on a train yard and ended up as an operations manager, planning of the yard, doing budgets and expenses, 14 guys directly under me. I had to learn how to be a leader and that’s been an invaluable experience in terms of running a band and my own business on the road. Watching funds. Balancing budgets. Trying to keep the business in the black. I think I honestly had to do that so I could do this. I can’t place enough importance from what I learned on a real job; this is a job at the end of the day. You’re making art but if you want to share it with people you have to treat it as a business.”
And bringing that band to the UK for the first time is something that excites Simpson. “With the band it’s more fun; it’s energetic and the crowd can get into it. I’m not so structurally handcuffed to certain dynamics. It’s more free. I can go here and there with the band. By this point we’ve been on the road for about two years. It’s a very small stripped down band, so it’s almost like telepathy, a lot of fun. I’ll be excited to play shows in the UK for the first time,the people that’ve only seen solo stuff will get a much different animal.”
As a regular in the UK in 2014 (“This is like my fifth trip this year!”) Simpson enjoys the quiet reverence that British audiences treat his music to. “I love playing over here for one very specific reason, and that is the fact that in the UK I’ve found the most respectful and attentive and appreciative audiences that I’ve played for in my life. Anywhere. And I can’t stress that enough. The first coupla times I came over it was so unnerving. I honestly thought that I was bombing and they hated it because it was so quiet. In the States you get a lot of background chatter. As long as they keep letting me through customs I’ll keep coming back. I love it.”
The UK very much loves Sturgill Simpson too, and even if you’ve caught him before the full band dates and venues are available on his website.