"This Song" was a new song to most people when it came out 2001 on my Blue Boy record, but truthfully it had been kicking around since about 1989. I used to play it in the bars with my band the Uncool in fact.
It was on the long list of songs that I brought to Mitchell Froom before we made my debut record, but at the time, Mitchell felt I was better at singing ballads and mid-tempo numbers and so it got left off and ultimately faded from my memory until around 2000 when I gave it a second look. Interscope had sent me a letter saying that they wanted another record from me which was surprising since my first three had not sold well. Also, around the time Whereabouts came out, they had become a three-headed monster, merging with Geffen and A&M. And now I was even less of a priority! They wanted me to make another LP but on two conditions.
I couldn't work with Mitchell Froom, and I had to make it for a lot less money than my first three. The first person I spoke to about it was Daniel Lanois who seemed interested at first. I even demoed all the songs at his home studio in Hamilton. (Emmylou Harris was there and Dan had her testing my mic and guitar levels as I arrived.) But ultimately he passed on it to go work on the new U2 album.
I suggested about 20 other producers that I liked including Nick Lowe and Gus Dudgeon (who made all the great Elton John records) but they were all rejected and so I asked them to suggest somebody. A few days later they came back to me with Steve Earle. He had just produced "Car Wheels On A Gravel Road" for Lucinda Williams, which was a hit both commercially and critically.
I already knew Steve, (in fact I'd known him since the late '80s). I loved Lucinda's record and so everything about the idea appealed to me. The only problem was, my home life was collapsing all around me and Steve had just this small window of opportunity in which to do it (as he had a record of his own coming out). So basically I had to head down to Nashville in the midst of personal chaos and get to work.
With all this weighing on my mind, I flew down with Don Kerr and we both checked into the Spence Manor, a legendary short stay apartment building with a guitar shaped swimming pool. Every room was named after a famous Country singer. I got the Dolly Parton suite and settled in for a month of music and escapism.
Right away I could tell this was going to be a different kind of record. In my mind I thought we were going to make an alt-country type record but Steve had seen me rocking out in the bars way back when and had always wondered why I had never made an album like that... he wanted me to rock!
The other thing that was different about Steve's methods was that there was no pre-production. We recorded 17 songs in 5 days and it felt like we were flying by the seat of our pants. It was basically, 1, 2, 3, 4 and go.
It was nice to finally have Don playing drums on one of my records instead of just doing backing vocals and it was also fitting that the first thing you hear on Blue Boy is the killer drum fill that kicks off "This Song" and sets the tone for the rest of the album. It may have been an older song but lyrically it meant much, much more to me at that time in my life then it ever had before.
I wrote this song in reverse. I can't remember where I was or what hotel I was in but I got all the lines that now make up the third verse "Behind the curtain, there may be sun" etc. and initially I thought it could be about a man on the run from the law or perhaps a song about life on the road but that would be boring. Then it occurred to me that it could also be about a woman on the run from an abusive relationship and with that, the other verses started to take shape.
It's another story song and Blue Boy had a few of them. I guess there must be a frustrated novelist somewhere inside me. It was Steve's idea to use the Al Green groove on it and although it's not an R&B song per se, I think it works really well and I've always enjoyed playing it live. I don't really know what else to say about it other than it's always been a good exercise for me to try and move a story along in just a matter of a verses and I think I managed to do that in this case.
DON'T ASK WHY
I don't know if I was having a dry spell but "Don't Ask Why" was almost as old as "This Song" when I finally recorded it in Nashville. I wrote this when I was still a courier and played it a few times with the Uncool before I got signed.
The whole concept is one I would end up revisiting a few times in my career and as recently as on the song "The Reason Why" from LPLB. I guess the basic gist of it is just trying to be happy without worrying about all the big questions and things that are beyond our control if that makes any sense.
It's a good showcase as well for the close harmonies that Don and I had been developing for years and that would later appear front and center on the Destination Unknown record. One other thing I would like to mention is that on this record in general I was trying improve my singing style. I felt on my first 3 records (and especially on Whereabouts) that my voice was too nasal and that it vibrated too much and so I was trying to produce a "rounder" tone. I think in my efforts to try and sing better I may have gone too far on this record (and possibly the next one) for there are moments where I think I sound like Kermit The Frog.
I was at my son's basketball game and worrying so much about money that I couldn't concentrate on the game. I had just seen Diana Krall on television the night before, I knew her a little bit as we had met once in Vancouver.
Anyway, I started thinking that it would be cool (and potentially lucrative) if I could write a song that she might deem worthy of recording. I pretty much wrote the whole song in my head while my son's game was going on and I still don't know who won. On the way home I actually started writing another song for Diana called "Your Guess Is As Good As Mine" which would appear on a later album. I don't know why I thought these tunes would be good for Miss Krall but as I said I was having financial stress and it seemed to me that the best way for a songwriter to make money in this business is for a big star to cover one (or two) of your songs. A few years ago, my friend John McDermott recorded both of these on his cd On A Whim, which was an album made up of entirely my songs... thanks John!
Now getting back to Nashville and the recording of "Foolproof," Steve really liked the song and it was his idea for me to try it on piano. Mind you, I was just beginning to play the piano and so it was an enormous feat for me to get through a live take while singing and playing but I did it. (There are some tricky chords too!) Almost immediately, after we got what we felt was a good take, Steve had the wonderful idea of bringing in Kami Lyle to play trumpet a la Chet Baker. (You know how I love Chet Baker.)
The next night Kami arrived with her fiancĂ©e Joey Spaminato from the great and criminally under-appreciated band NRBQ (one of my favourite groups) and it was treat to hear her improvise in and around the lyrics of my song. She actually made my piano playing seem way better than it was.
TELL ME AGAIN
I wrote this song in a hotel room in Barcelona in '99.
I was on tour opening up for Elvis who was playing shows with Steve Naive all across Europe. In my room there was a print of the famous Blue Boy painting by Gainsborough. As a kid, I used to think I looked a little bit like the boy in the painting so as I was writing "Tell Me Again" I had already decided what my next album would be called.
Lyrically I was dealing with a lot of inner turmoil. I was falling in love with someone I met on the road and at the same time I was trying to be a better husband and father but wondering if my soul mate might be somebody else. I was looking for something or someone to make things clearer in my heart.
A few months earlier on Valentine's Day, I had been in yet another hotel room looking out my window at some blue flowers in the distance and wondering the same exact thing. "Blue flowers on the hill, where's my valentine?"
The picking style I'm using on this song seems influenced by Bruce Cockburn who I've since come to know. I can't play half as good as Bruce but my heart was in the right place.
I don't think Steve was too fond of it but luckily for me, the other half of Twang Trust, Ray Kennedy, was! And so we worked on it late into the night while Steve was away doing something important I'm sure.
JUST MY HEART TALKIN'
This was the newest one on Blue Boy and I think it took me less than 30 minutes to write it. You hear about songs that write themselves, well this was one of them.
My Kermit voice is in full effect on this track but I do like the song.
I always hoped some Country artist would cover it, though recently it was done by an artist named Sara Lov, whose version I really love. Or should I say "lov?"
I played this song on the Jools Holland Show (I think there's a clip on YouTube) and if you look closely in the background you'll see Michael Stipe and Brian Eno who were also guests on the show. Talk about intimidation!
It was actually this performance that got the attention of Chris Martin from Coldplay. He had never heard of me before and apparently went out the next day and bought the album and started telling everyone about it. We ended up meeting them in Sydney Australia and opening up for them long before they were a stadium band.
Lyrically, it has a similar theme to "Nothing Good" but that was my life then. Sometimes your heart is ignored when lust walks in the room.
NOT TOO BIG
Here's another really old one that finally found a home on Blue Boy. My publisher Ronny Vance really liked it but Mitchell thought it was a bit too "jive turkey" and I trusted him on that.
I don't remember why so many older songs made it on this record but I guess I was having a bit of a musical yard sale, cleaning house or whatever. It's not a great song but it was fun to record and after all Steve wanted this record be more up-tempo and grittier sounding. Also, I think I was getting better at singing and was in a place where I could deliver a song like this and not suck too badly.
I remember after we finally got a good take of it Steve said through the headphones, "That was greasier than Slim Harpo's hair." That's a good thing, right?
MIRACLE IN ITSELF
Like "Foolproof," this was quite an achievement for me. It was the hardest song on the record to sing (which is why I hardly ever perform it) and the chords were difficult to keep track of because it changes key and comes back to the original key. On top of that, I had to play it and sing it live so I can't tell you how relieved I was to get it on the very first take!
It was very Beatle-esque and so Steve took the opportunity to throw some backward loops on the second bridge while Don does his best Ringo.
I started writing the song in Austria on a train "As the fields go hurrying by." I was touring over there by rail with a lovely road manager named Suzanne. It's a vaguely spiritual song that could've fit in nicely with the tunes on Exit Strategy and it's one of my favourites... from this record anyway.
Here's another one that I don't think Steve cared for that much. My friend Kyp Harness didn't much like it either but I thought it was a fine song and if you listen, you'll notice that I'm trying to channel Johnny Cash on it.
Lyrically, it sums up the atmosphere in my home at the time, which was wall-to-wall sadness and tension, but I didn't know what to do about it. Like "Tell Me Again," I worked mostly with Ray on this one. Ray is an amazing guitarist and he thought it was a perfect song to try out his Les Paul technique of slowing down the tape to record so that it sounds sped up on the track.
My friend Ana Egge (who is also one of my favourite singer/songwriters) came by to sing on it with Don Kerr. I always loved those sort of "square sounding" backing vocalists on songs like "Poor Little Fool" by Ricky Nelson and "Ballad Of A Teenage Queen" by Johnny Cash and so I had them sing it real white and square. I think it's a better song than a recording but we came close.
NEVER BEEN DONE
Another story song that somehow turned into a ska recording. I don't know what business I had making a ska record but I put my trust in Steve who knew more about it than me. I was starting to get nervous. I didn't know what kind of record we were making. We had a jazz ballad. a funky blues song and now a ska number! I went to Steve with my concerns and he said, "Have you ever heard The White Album" by the Beatles??" Steve has this great way of explaining things.
The other thing about working with Ray and Steve was they had literally hundreds of guitars in the studio to choose from. I don't know anything about guitars but I would pick a different one for each song on the basis of how it looked as if I was casting for a movie. I think I played an old Kay guitar on this one. It may have been a Silvertone but I like I said, I don't know anything about guitars, I just like playing them.
Lyrically, it's a fictional story of a boy who wants his father's acceptance. Some people thought it was about me but it wasn't though I could relate to it. This one hardly ever gets requested so I'm assuming we didn't quite pull it off. Great horns by Jim Hoke though... he's a one man horn section!
Great song by Kyp Harness. It's amazing to me how unknown he still remains. I remember when he first recorded it on his album, God's Footstool. Don Kerr produced that record, and I went down to hear some tracks. I was absolutely speechless upon hearing it (and kind of depressed too). I recall thinking that I'll never be able to write anything as good as that.
His influence on me as a writer and as a friend is undeniable. I learned so much from him and I think I became a better songwriter just from knowing him. At the time I made Blue Boy, I wanted to do something for Kyp because I had sort of "made it" and wanted to try and help him out if possible.
It seemed the best thing I could do was to cover one of his songs and it didn't take me long to decide which one. I think we did a great version of it and I was really happy to play it for him over the phone from the studio. Do yourself a favour and hunt down a copy of God's Footstool or any one of his fine albums for that matter.
Yet another old one from the vault. Probably the most disturbing song I've ever written.
I played it once or twice when the album came out and it seemed to make people feel uncomfortable so I stopped playing it altogether. It's a fictional account of envy which leads to the possibility of murder or at least a man contemplating murder.
I think I was trying to write a sort of Kyp Harness type song. (I was under his spell at the time.) He had one called "The Ballad Of Curtis Merton" that was a claustrophobic, cinematic song of a guy who goes on a rampage as I recall.
The recording of it was fun though. Steve had Don play the groove and he made a loop of it, which is threaded throughout the song. There's a strange effect on the vocal too that gives it a sort of nightmare treatment. It's definitely an oddball track.
KEEP IT IN MIND
I always thought that this song had "hit" potential but I guess I was wrong.
During the making of Blue Boy, we got word that Tom Whalley was leaving Interscope. He was the president but he was also my A&R man and one of the few people there that seem to like having me around. It was nerve wracking because we didn't want to stay with Interscope if Tom wasn't there, but at the same time we weren't sure if they'd let us take the album elsewhere. Steve thought his label Artemis would want it... but they didn't. We eventually put it out on SpinArt in the states and it became my best selling record there.
Not much to say about this particular song except that it was a breath of fresh air after "Parable." It's just about trying to move forward without forgetting the lessons we've learned as well as the advice from friends and loved ones.
I got to play a fun early-Beatles style guitar solo which Steve really dug. Over all, we had a blast recording it. We even had Steve's brother Patrick play a trash can on it. You don't hear that every day.
Without a doubt, this was the best-written song on the record. It contains what I feel are probably my best lyrics as well.
I wrote it in my head while walking with Jocelyne and the kids through the Beaches park one autumn. I love writing these sort of flowery, pastoral kind of songs. I've always felt more feminine in general and most of my best friends have been women too. I feel that without the feminine side in rock n roll, you're left with... dare I say... Nickelback. (I don't mean to put them down though, they seem like nice fellows.)
I remember Steve really liking this one too. We were listening to the play back of it and after hearing the words in the second verse, he turned and said, "Fuck me" or words to that effect.
kd Lang even covered it a few years later (although in 4/4 time) and she's so good she can literally sing the yellow pages!
It was a nice way to finish off such an eclectic batch of songs. I don't listen to Blue Boy very often but it was a great experience working with Steve, Ray and Don (Brad Jones too!) and to quote the great Charles Dickens, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."