Tom Wilkinson

Tom Wilkinson is a filmmaker and photographer. He has a B.A. in film from Emerson College and works in the busy New York movie scene. He and his wife, Alissa (editor of The Curator) live in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

That Kind of Love:
An Interview with Pierce Pettis

What Kind of Love, Pierce Pettis’s 2009 album.

Pierce Pettis is one of today’s most celebrated American songwriters. His songs, tinged with his Appalachian upbringing, have been called “profound,” “beautifully delivered,” “wry,” “sensitive,” and “an integral part of any singer/songwriter’s collection.”

The Curator‘s Tom Wilkinson has followed Pettis’s career for years, and he recently discussed songwriting, storytelling, and how to have a lengthy career in the music business with the musician.

You’re often referred to as one of America’s great songwriters, so I have to ask – what do you think makes a good song? When you teach songwriting, what do you say?

There are so many great songwriters who are much better than me. But in my opinion, a good song is one that makes you think – not of the writer and his world, but of your own life. It’s that quality that makes a song universal.

I teach songwriting workshops occasionally. If it’s a short afternoon session, I just run through the nuts and bolts basics: making a strong chorus, tips to improve melody, lyrics that say less and mean more, and so on. But when I have several days for a workshop, I like to spend the first session on a “philosophy of songwriting.” I like to challenge the class to consider their real motive in songwriting, and the point of songwriting, in general.

You’ve been doing essentially the same thing for the last twenty years: writing songs, putting out albums, and touring the country. How do you build a steady, perhaps modest, life out of music when you’re not a “rock star”? How can musicians build longevity into their careers?

It’s pretty hard to do, but I’ve also been blessed with a small following of people who allow me to actually squeeze a living out of writing, recording, and touring. Without their support I couldn’t do it – nor would I want to.

I’m probably the worst person in the world to give advice to musicians, but I would say be true to yourself, ignore trends, learn from other artists, and trust your own voice. Play what you know is good, and work to make it better.

Your most recent album, That Kind of Love, is your fifth with Compass Records. How does it build on your previous recordings, and how does it break with what you’ve done before?

My first album for Compass Records, Making Light of It, was recorded in Nashville, but I had David Miner, a producer I’d worked with before, come from California to produce with a mostly-Californian crew. The next album, Everything Matters, was my first entirely Nashville-based project.

Though these two projects were great, I think I really began to find my own identity on the next album, State of Grace. This was the first of three albums with Garry West. Garry owns and runs Compass Records with his wife, Alison Brown, so I was surprised and flattered when he asked to produce the record.

I had just experienced a string of professional misfortunes, and I was out of a job, out of money, and on the verge of losing my house. I had expected Garry to drop me – not produce me. I discovered in Garry an amazingly gifted and supportive producer. I hadn’t realized that Garry and Alison were actually fans – that they really liked what I was about as a writer and artist.

So, I was allowed to draw more on my own Appalachian upbringing. The songs were all about home, family, and nostalgia. Recorded live, the sound was more rootsy and warm, and the cover art was a painting by Howard Finster, who grew up in my home of DeKalb County, Alabama, rather than the usual photo portrait. The players on the album were not only top-notch, but they really wanted to be on the project.

The next album, Great Big World, continued what State of Grace started. We added more wonderful players, the sessions were done live, and the sound was, if anything, more rootsy than before. Some of the songs were co-writes with David Wilcox and continued in the family/home/faith vein. The cover art was by Chattanooga-based (and Howard Finster-inspired) artist, Terry Cannon.

The new album builds on the previous two recordings with the return of many I’ve worked with before, creating a musical zone I’m familiar and comfortable with. I think it differs in that Garry and I tried to make the album entirely song-centered – it stands or falls on the strength of each individual song, instead of a theme. The production is quite a bit more intimate and sparse. And the songs themselves are pieces I’ve performed live and lived with much longer than on earlier albums.

There are four years between Great Big World and That Kind of Love. Four years must have resulted in a lot of additional material. Not to sound greedy, but any chance we’ll see some of those songs from the cutting room floor on a B-side album or EP later this year?

Well, there have always been those cutting room floor songs. Though it was written in the 90s, I don’t think I was really up to performing “To Dance” the way it should be done until now. And “Veracruz” was a re-write from an earlier version started 10 years earlier. Both songs were discarded from previous projects – their time just hadn’t come yet. Needless to say, there are a number of other songs in various states of development and repair. And I have some newer songs just finished. No plans, however, for B-sides or EPs this year.

One of my favorite aspects of seeing live shows is that you sometimes get to hear the stories behind the songs. What can you tell us about the songs in this collection?

Here’s a story I like: “I Am Nothing” was inspired by a friend of mine and outstanding songwriter named Don Dunaway. Though Don once worked with people like Steve Goodwin and Michael Smith, for the last thirty years he has labored in obscurity at a tourist bar in St. Augustine, Florida. Every afternoon, Don performs his own very original songs for a drive-by audience ranging from indifferent to openly hostile. This is a distressing spectacle to those of us who admire Don and his work. However, as I tell my audiences, it occurred to me one day that this was not at all a tragedy, but a magnificent, life-long act of defiance.

This is your third album that uses folk art (from Howard Finster and Terry Cannon). How did you find them, and what attracts you to their work?

Terry and I discovered each other at a show in Chattanooga a few years ago. I was doing a concert in a space that was also an exhibition of Terry’s work, which I was loudly admiring, not realizing the artist was standing right next to me. Terry was also a fan of my work, so it became a sort of mutual admiration society. I’d been familiar with Howard’s work for some time. I’m drawn to their work for its innocent, whimsical quality. Both artists convey something that is at once childlike and very wise.

Lastly: what have you been listening to recently?

There’s an old out-of-print, early 90s album by some friends of mine from Florida called “The New Arkadelphians.” The main writer, Jack Cheshire, is some kind of genius.

Other than that, I’m listening to everything: Coldplay, Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Joni Mitchell, Al Green, The Who, Elvis Costello, and Beethoven.

An Interview with Katie Herzig (Part 3)

This is the third in a three-part interview with singer/songwriter Katie Herzig. You can read parts one and two.

There’s a lot in “Apple Tree” about searching for love – I’m intrigued by some of those themes that come through on this album.

“Hologram” talks about understanding how to get close to people, and it’s quite pessimistic about it all, while at the same understanding that part of growing is pain and honesty. “Sumatra” and “How the West Was Won” are more about looking to the future, being more vulnerable and open. Those songs are a lot less exhausting to sing, but they explore the opposite of what “Hologram” is about.

And even though they’re honest, they’re not exhausting. I know some people put a lot of emotion into their performance – is that something you do, or does the song speaks for itself emotionally?

Sometimes I’m not really connected with what I’m saying – I’m singing and experiencing the song, but not experiencing everything it’s saying. Maybe I’m thinking about what song I’m going to be playing next, or the distracted person in the back of the room. But sometimes, in live shows, there are moments when you’re connected with the song and where it came from, and it takes you to that moment. That’s the blessing and the curse, depending on where you were when you wrote it.

• You can hear songs from Apple Tree at the sampler on NoiseTrade, and download the entire album plus bonus tracks for free!.
• Find out more about Katie and get her earlier albums on her website.
• Katie is currently on tour! Check out her tour dates and locations.

Your newest album is entitled “Apple Tree”, but that isn’t the name of a song. Instead, it’s an image that appears in three different songs on the album. Does that image hold a particular significance for you?

It does, and it’s hard to explain. First of all, I didn’t realize that I mention an apple tree in three songs until I was mixing the record. I don’t know how that happened.

But when you’re writing songs, you go through phases of using similar images. But in “Songbird”, in the lyrics “I am a songbird / Singing out your windows / Telling stories in the shade”, the tree feels sort of like a platform or a stage, but with a life of its own. That might seem random, but it definitely came out in this record, and when I realized it was in three of the songs, it felt like the most natural title.

What’s your songwriting process like? How do you work your way into a song?

Most of the time, I write with an instrument in my hand and either a pad of paper or a computer in front of me. A lot of times I’ll just press “record” and start singing something. For me, it’s mostly based on starting with a musical and melodic place that feels interesting – otherwise I don’t want to stay there. So I make things up, and lines come out that I have to write down. That sets up rules for the song, and then I fill it out. Sometimes there is something inside that is clear, and I can say it so easily because it’s on the tip of my tongue, but other times you know there’s something there but you have to spend a little more time with it. Those are the songs where I get to the end and I’m grateful that something came out of it. It’s more of an act of listening rather than speaking – like tapping into something really beautiful and meaningful.

Finally getting out of the way and listening, like you said.

Any time you can. Sometimes you just know that you’re in that zone, and that whatever’s going to come out is going to be special, and other times you’re not. Part of the process is identifying when you’re in that place.

Do you have ways, or times of day, or habits or processes to try and create opportunity for that to happen, to put yourself in that place?

If you’d asked me a couple years ago, I would have said I was freer with my words at night, when I should be sleeping. But since I put my record out, the kind of creating and writing I’ve done has been more co-writing than writing on my own. The things I’ve written on my own have been for specific purposes, like when I was asked to write a song for the Sex and the City movie. It was so much fun, because I always thought I would enjoy seeing a scene and then creating music that fit it. I was flooded with ideas that I recorded, and one was used for the soundtrack. I’ve had others since then that I’ve been trying to develop – it was such a rare and different way of creating music, a breath of fresh air to create music that’s not a statement about who you are, or the kind of song that Katie Herzig would write.

That song doesn’t really sound like you – there’s a lot of programming and drum machine going on. It has the potential to become the next club scene hit. I know you have a proclivity for pop music; was that a way you wanted to go, or was that only a fun excursion?

I believe it’s both. I had never written a song where that didn’t involve a guitar or piano. On this, I would build drum loops, then play bass lines and fill in around that. For this specific song, I was trying to follow what they had loved about a Fergie song they’d temped in, so it was pushing me into those “guilty pleasure” places that I enjoyed working on. I could never play that song live, so it’s not a realistic style for me. When I started getting swept up in creating that song and others around it, I started to think, Oh gosh, what am I doing, I am totally changing – having a bit of an identity crisis. But I’ve found a way since then to massage myself into something in between. There will always be people that prefer my first, most acoustic record, and I’ll dabble in different kinds of production based on songs, as well as my influences at the time. But there was something about the Sex and the City thing that was freeing, knowing that I could go there and not be caught up in what people might think about it. It was a very specific creation for something very specific, and I know it has influenced me, but I don’t think it will take over what I’ve already laid down for myself.

No, I don’t think anyone’s worried about that. You’ve had a lot of songs end up in TV shows and movies, even since your first solo album. Who do you have to thank for that? Who does the leg work?

My first TV placement was on Smallville, because a high school friend works for the show. I’ve worked with companies that represent artists to music supervisors for film and TV placements. The company I’m working with now is great. But I traced back my first Grey’s Anatomy placement last year – a few people showed up at a Hotel Café show that I did last year, and told me they were the reason I was on the show. Apparently they heard me on KCRW, and one of them was working as an editor on the show. So some of it comes from connections, and some of it comes from your music just being out there. It’s a good way to get your music heard and also make some money.

You’ve been on tour all fall. What do you do while on the road to stay plugged into the community back home, as opposed to burning out on the road?

The community in Nashville is made up of people who understand when you disappear for a while on tour and then come back and become part of the community again. It’s always been hard for me to get locked into a group, because I’m gone a lot. But it’s important to just let people know you’re back and make an effort to connect. It’s hard, though, when you leave. Each time, I learn how hard it is, because you’re in a groove at home, then a groove on the road, and when you get home it takes a couple days to adjust and become re-connected.

You mentioned earlier that you weren’t conscious of “apple tree” showing up several times in the lyrics, and I was wondering about two of the other ones that stuck out at me. One was birds singing out windows, which came up in both “Songbird” and “Shovel”. Light was another one – “light on your feet” (I Want to Belong to You), “waiting for the dark to make it’s way back into the light” (How the West Was Won), “someday meeting in the light” (Sumatra), “catch the breeze that moves you to the sunlight” (Gypsy Girl), “the light is always on you / always in the light” (Shovel).

I had no idea! That’s so funny. Well, I guess that’s place that encompasses joy and wisdom and knowledge and all those good things. Lightness is like that, and darkness is a harder place. I guess that’s my non-specific way of alluding to something good.

An Interview with Katie Herzig (Part 2)

This is the second in a three-part interview with singer/songwriter Katie Herzig. You can read part one here.

During all this you were still living in Colorado. What prompted you to move to Nashville?

I had taken trips out to Nashville to do some songwriting, and the band had recorded our last record there, so I had some history with the city and knew a handful of people. I had gotten to know some artists with whom I really connected. I think I wanted to be part of a community of other artists making art that I really respected. It had nothing to do with Colorado – I miss it a lot. But for someone who wants to make their living in music, Nashville provided a community and unique opportunities for collaboration in writing and touring, as well as access to the business. There are plenty of artists in Colorado who are doing their thing and doing a great job of it, but I had a great connection with what was going on in Nashville.

For a musician, community is a particular problem, because they need to play and record with other musicians to make it work. It sounds like you had a good base to be able to move out there and start life in a new city. How did you foster those relationships? How do musicians find each other in a city like Nashville?

Once you’re there, you realize that it’s not that hard to find others, since you’re in music venues and at shows and hanging out with other artists who know other people. At first, I went to so many shows, and I tried to meet a lot of people. I would look for music that I liked and try to meet those people, for no other reason than to be friends with them and hear how they do it. But the Internet also helps, because you can see who knows who in different networks. Performing also provided a way for other people to see what I could do, and that helped me meet a lot of people.

Was there a particular venue or a songwriters night or something where a lot of those people you’ve really gravitated towards all gathered?

Not necessarily. In Nashville, there’s a handful of great venues. When I first moved to town, I participated in “Eight off 8th”, an evening in which eight artists each play three songs at the Mercy Lounge. They’re free shows, so people just go hang out there too. There was one particularly “Eight off 8th” to which I can trace several opportunities and relationships, and that’s a part of being in a town where your primary audience is other musicians.

• You can hear songs from Apple Tree at the sampler on NoiseTrade, and download the entire album plus bonus tracks for free!.
• Find out more about Katie and get her earlier albums on her website.
• Katie is currently on tour! Check out her tour dates and locations.

It’s funny how life gives you little things you can look back on and see precise turning points.

It gives you hope, too. Anything can happen any day, depending on who you meet.

You had a new album, “Apple Tree,” come out this spring. If “Weightless” was a breakup album for your old band, where did the songs on “Apple Tree” come from?

In the aftermath of the band’s breakup, I discovered something new and fresh; so many of the songs on “Weightless” came right before everything changed, and a lot of the songs on “Apple Tree” came from after that. The production was symbolic – I didn’t hold it as close. I included other people as co-producers as well – Cason Cooley for five of the songs, Aaron Johnson for one, and I did the rest. It was hard to invite other people into the process for what I knew would be my next record, but as it progressed, I appreciated having help from someone else who cared about the record just as much as me, while I was still ultimately in charge of what was happening. It wasn’t as though I was giving anything up, but rather allowing people to add what I couldn’t.

Why did you decide to go that route this time?

I wanted to grow a bit. A friend recommended Cason – I knew who he was, but my friend was sure we’d work well together. So we met one night, and we decided to try and couple songs, and we did. I think the risk is that you create something you like and you actually decide to put it on a record.

Being in this town, I’ve developed an appreciation for the players, producers, and musicians that are really good, and there are some people making a living on just producing or being a session player. While my instincts are pretty good – I can usually come close to playing what I want to hear, because I’m drawn to fairly simple parts – I also want to let go a little and realize that others have a lot to offer. I also love supporting what they do. I think it was a healthy decision to have more involvement and interaction with other people.

Your music has a playful nature about it, so it seems to make sense you would enjoy playing with others in the studio as you record those songs. You talked a little bit about working with Cason. How did Cason and Aaron’s strengths as producers compliment what you were already doing in the studio?

I think Cason approaches production with a sensitivity to who he’s working with. He’s not overbearing, which is good, since I have a strong sense of what I like, but he’s great at being excited about a song and trying a lot of things. He has an incredible ear and builds a track based on a respect for not doing things just for the sake of doing them. We got along well, which removes some of the pressure – some of what’s hard in making a record is finishing. The initial excitement for me comes from getting ideas down, but then actually getting in the studio, making sure you have the best version, and editing and listening is difficult. You have to be patient and see something to the end. Cason was really, really helpful in that.

Aaron and I worked on the song “Hologram”. We had talked about doing something for years, because he’d produced a couple Newcomers Home tracks that never ended up on anything, and since then he’d worked with The Fray and become a successful producer. He came to one of my shows in New York, and afterward he said he really liked what I was doing, but missed how much louder I’d sung with the band.

I’d started softening up, probably because I recorded “Weightless” in my house and had to be quiet. After he made that comment, I went away and wrote “Hologram”, so I always wanted him to help produce that song, since it was a somewhat intentional effort to do that again. He has great pop sensibilities, and it’s written in that vein, so I thought he’d be a great one to work with.

It must be exhausting to come back to something much louder.

It’s funny – “Hologram” is the most exhausting song I’ve written. When I sing it live every night, I feel like I just ran sprints. It’s brutally honest in pointing out things you don’t usually talk about, and at the same time, I’m belting that stuff out.

Our interview with Katie Herzig will conclude next Friday.

An Interview with Katie Herzig (Part 1)

If you haven’t heard Katie Herzig’s music yet, you will soon. The August issue of Paste placed her on the “22 Up-and-Coming Artists You Ignore at Your Own Peril!“, and called her music “brightly textured acoustic pop that’s clever yet sincere, sunny but grounded”. In describing her latest album, “Apple Tree”, Billboard called it “an adventurous and playful album perfect for the triple A set”, and said that her work is “recorded with care and a bigness that transcends the potentially damning status of just being another girl in Nashville with a guitar.” Her songs have appeared on many television shows, including Grey’s Anatomy, One Tree HIll, Lipstick Jungle, and Ghost Whisperer, and her song “Look At You Now” was written for the Sex and the City movie and featured on volume two of the soundtrack.

Clearly, Herzig’s one to watch. Below is the first of a three-part interview, in which Herzig talks candidly about her creative process, making music in the Nashville community, and her latest effort, “Apple Tree”.

How did you get your start in music?

I grew up being involved in bands, orchestras, and choir. In band I played percussion, but my Dad had a guitar at our house that he liked to play for fun, so I kind of dabbled; then my Dad gave me a guitar for my birthday during my senior year of high school. It was a complete surprise, but it became a defining moment for me.

I went off to college and learned to play guitar by being surrounded by a lot of friends who played. My older sister Jenny majored in music in college, and what she went through terrified me because I dealt a lot with performance nerves, so I decided I was more interested in writing and creating. I minored in creative writing but graduated from my college’s journalism school with a degree in production, thinking I might make documentaries.

But that all evolved though into what I thought of as a degree in being in a band. I had started a band called Newcomers Home during my freshman year with some friends, and it lasted through college and four years after; my dreams of doing other things faded, and I really just wanted to keep making music.

Do you still do anything with creative writing or documentary filmmaking?

I loved production, editing, photography, and filming, and a lot of that has crossed over into my music – editing and recording myself, working within Pro Tools, and mixing. Any writing outside of music comes in waves – I still love writing fiction, but I don’t spend much time doing it at this point in my life.

• You can hear songs from Apple Tree at the sampler on NoiseTrade, and download the entire album plus bonus tracks for free!.
• Find out more about Katie and get her earlier albums on her website.
• Katie is currently on tour! Check out her tour dates and locations.

You started Newcomers Home, and you’re described as the frontman, but it didn’t originally start that way.

It didn’t start that way at all. In the beginning, we were literally still learning how to play our instruments and writing songs for the first time, and I was a more timid performer. We all started singing the songs we wrote, so the other guys in the band would sing as well.

On our first little EP, we had multiple singers; afterward we recorded it, the band decided that I should be the singer. I’d spent so many years singing already, and the more I did it, the more comfortable I was. We were kids finding our way into what would eventually become something that at which we could make a living.

You were still with the band when you recorded your first solo album, “Watch Them Fall.” What prompted you to make the record?

When you write a song, and you like it, you hope that it will be heard and have a life of its own. I had all these songs, but we were all fighting for the band to do our songs, so I wanted to take the pressure off the band.

With the band’s albums, I was involved in the studio with the production process, so I felt it would be really fun to do it on my own, to see what I would do if I were the only one making these choices. Chris Coleman, who co-produced “Watch Them Fall”, was in the band for a brief period of time. I always loved his production sense – he and I have similar taste and he’s good at making stuff up, and that’s essentially what you need when you have to build a song around a guitar vocal. He’s a great, great engineer, so we had always talked about doing something on the side together, but neither of us had much experience with production.

Chris never finished songs, but he would make these little one-minute songs and send them to me, and I always thought they were really cool. Anytime you work with a producer or another writer whose work you respect, you hope that it will rub off on whatever you’re doing. His melodies, love of layering, and intimate stacked vocals happened a little less on that record, but it was laying a foundation for what was to come.

Why did you take on sole producing responsibilities for your second album, “Weightless?”

The band was ending, and I knew that I was about to embark on a solo endeavor after that. When you’re in a band for eight years, and you make four records, and all of the decisions and the songs and the production is a group effort, you compromise to hear everyone’s opinions. I had done that for so many years that I wanted to see what it was like to have nobody between me and the mic.

I bought a Mac laptop and Pro Tools, thinking I would use it to demo songs and try out some production ideas and then head into a studio for a record, but as I started doing that I realized that I really liked the sound of those recordings and I could possibly make a record on my own. I had poked around, talking to different people, almost seeking permission to do something like that entirely on my own, and then I realized I didn’t need anyone’s permission. All I needed to do was just do it.

That decision was really freeing and exciting for me. It was the beginning of months of discovering what I would do on my own, and that’s what came out. I’ve been a “do-it-yourselfer” since then, so that record helped define where I was headed.

There’s a bit of a homemade feel to “Weightless – it’s not the cleanest of recordings. I wasn’t being nitpicky, doing ten takes on one vocal; I would sing the whole way through, play the whole way through, and then record around it.

When someone records an album in their bedroom you mostly hope no one can hear the dog’s toenails clicking on the kitchen floor, but “Weightless” is very hi-fi, even contrasted with other high-profile bedroom recordings like Iron & Wine’s “Creek Drank the Cradle.”

It’s interesting you mention “Creek Drank the Cradle” – that was actually the album I heard that made me think I could do it. My initial instinct after writing most songs now is that I don’t need to go somewhere else to record it, but I’ll just do it on my own and start here.

A lot of what you liked about Chris Coleman’s one-minute songs seems to have carried over and really blossomed on “Weightless”.

Absolutely. I adopted a lot of his approach. He also told me exactly what kind of equipment to buy, and he would help me with my technical problems. He played a few things on the record and put some of his magical touch to it.

Our interview with Katie Herzig will continue next Friday.