On the evening of February 16th, I sat down at the Doug Fir Lounge in Portland, Oregon with Kasey Anderson to discuss Nowhere Nights, his third original full-length album, on the day of its official release. What follows in an account of our conversation about the new album, Portland, Springsteen and other miscellany.
All Most gossip and hearsay has been left intact. In true No Depression fashion, no attempt was made to define the genre of music we are talking about. –Ellie Fiore
First of all, congratulations on today's release of Nowhere Nights. How does it feel, given that the album has been available for a while from your website and on iTunes?
It doesn't feel that different, because the album has been out there in some form for about six months, and I've been sitting with these songs for over a year. But it is significant for people like me who still go to record stores on new release day. I remember very vividly being a teenager and waiting outside of Everyday Music or Music Millennium to get the new Nirvana or Pearl Jam record.
This is the first album you put out on your new label, Red River Records. Why did decide to go in that direction?
I just needed to be in a situation where I was 100% responsible for my own success or failure. I'm just not in a position where I want to put my career in somebody else's hands at the moment, but I wanted Red River Records to be a label artists who do want or need a little help could come to.
I really hadn't planned to start a label but my last experience was so....Well, it ended with the head of the label asking me if I would record a cover of "Every Rose Has Its Thorn."
I shit you not.
Well, that's a justified deal-breaker.
Tell me about the process of making Nowhere Nights. This is an album largely about your leaving Bellingham WA, where you'd been living for a decade. It’s a break-up album about a city.
It is. This album started out as writing exercises. I finished writing The Reckoning in 2006 and it came out in 2007, so there was a year and a half where I wasn't writing songs. And I could just feel myself getting further away from where I wanted to be as a writer. You know how when you don't pick up a book for three weeks, you can just feel yourself get dumber? That's where I was. So I started writing, just bits and pieces of the last decade of my life in Bellingham.
"Bellingham Blues" was the first song that came out. I had been listening to a lot of Lightnin' Hopkins and Woodie Guthrie, and the exercise had been to write something simple, a simple refrain. We cut that song in Brooklyn, in October of 2007, and I thought that would be it in terms of writing about Bellingham.
But the more I wrote, the more it became obvious that I had a lot more to say, and that I wanted to say it out loud. Living with these songs for the last year has been a great reminder of a place I don't want to go back to –and I'm not talking about a physical place so much as a state of mind. But, because I spent ten years in that state of mind, and those ten years coincided directly with the years I spent in Bellingham, the two are linked for me.
Ok, give me a Kasey Anderson mini-bio. You're from...
Portland, originally. I moved to Bellingham at 18, for school, but left school after a year, spent a few years between Bellingham and Portland and then went back for seven years full-time.
I imagine it's a lot like Ithaca, NY, where I went to school. It's this really great, really small town. And I thought seriously about staying, but I realized if I didn't leave, I'd never get out.
Exactly. You'd die there. And that's what some people want, but I wasn't one of those people.
Also, as a musician in Bellingham, it's easy to become a big fish in a small pond. You play shows for 250 people in Bellingham, then go to Seattle and ten people show up, and you can't figure it out. It's not difficult to become a celebrity in Bellingham.
I like the small town thing. I like to have a rapport with the person who makes my coffee in the morning, I just don't want that person to know who I'm sleeping with.
Portland can be small that way, though.
True. But Portland is made up of a bunch of those small towns. If you wear out your welcome in one, you just cross a bridge and you're in another.
Good point. Maybe I should leave Southeast one of these years. Is Portland home for you? Is this it?
It is. I love it here and my family is here. And I've been everywhere, and I don't really want to live anywhere else. Maybe New York, but if I went to New York, I'd never leave.
But what if you didn't grow up here? Do you think you'd still be drawn to Portland?
I don't know. I have a soft spot for the Northwest. It's really beautiful here, and I appreciate people from the Northwest. I think maybe it's their sense of humor.
What do you think the Northwest sense of humor is?
Really dry. Sardonic.
Oh, I completely disagree. I know what you mean about sharing a sense of humor with people you grow up with, but I'm super dry and people here tend to just think I'm mean.
I will concede that people in the Northwest are too PC for their own good.
The word I always use, and a lot of people use, is "earnest".
Yes. Absolutely. But, I've been gone so long, everything about Portland is adorable right now.
I thought the Northwest was really white, but Germany –where I spent most of the last year – is uncomfortably so. Steve Earle says the German people only clap on the one. And that is exactly right. Perfect.
Did you play much while you were over there?
I played a lot in Ireland and the UK. I went out with The Low Anthem for a bit and did a few tours around Germany. I played a lot a bar in Garmisch-Partenkirchnen, Germany, this Irish pub that had an almost exclusively American clientele. And most of them would have preferred I played Kenny Chesney songs, but I don't know any Kenny Chesney songs.
To your credit.
Actually, there was one guy who would come in at least twice a week and request the Social Distortion song "Ball and Chain". And not only would he request it, but he would request to sing it. So I'd play the song, and he'd sing it.
And now you're heading out on tour again.
I am. I'll be out traveling for most of March, April and May. I have maybe three days off.
Tell me about writing songs. How did you learn to play?
I've been playing guitar since I was eleven years old or so. I guess I learned to write songs by being bad at it long enough. Addition by subtraction.
But where does that initial impetus to write a song come from?
I always gravitated towards writing songs. There was always music in our house growing up, stuff like Prine and Dylan and Springsteen. Until I was about eight years old, I thought everyone sang like Prine or Dylan. The first time I heard somebody like Sly Stone, I couldn't understand it. It didn't compute.
For me, writing songs, writing music, isn't entirely about artistic expression. It's a mode of communication from one person to a group of people. At the end of the day, the art is mine, but I'm not creating it in a vacuum, you know? If I didn't intend for people to relate to it, I'd just keep it to myself.
You have a degree in...English? (Kasey nods). What's your songwriting process like? Do you write lyrics or music first?
A little of both. I usually write the melody first and will have an idea of what I want to write about. Nowhere Nights is the best I've done as far as marrying the content and how the mood of the song fits that content. Like Blake's Song (“I Was a Photograph” about Iraq War veteran and post traumatic stress disorder victim James Blake Miller). There's loneliness in there, and torment, and then at the end, it sounds like a war.
It does. Is that the only song on the album that's really a thematic departure?
It is. It's the only song that's not about me. And I wasn't going to put it on the record for that reason, because it didn't want to put it in the context of ten songs about me being a fuck-up.
Has that song gotten the most attention so far?
Yes, and that's right; that's how I want it. If people hear one song off this album and nothing else, it should be that song.
And Blake heard that song and got in touch with you. How did that happen?
I contacted the photographer, Luis Sinco, to see if I could use the photo in the Nowhere Nights liner notes. I sent him the song, and he passed it on to Blake, who wrote to me and said he was really moved by it.
How is he doing?
He seems to be doing better. He's tired. We stay in touch, and I hope to be able to see him at some point on this tour. You know, that disease is pretty fucking hard to deal with. I mean, you can try and deaden your senses as much as you want, but as long as you have the memories of what happened to you, it's there. People have a hard time understanding mental disorders. If you can't see it, maybe you don't believe it. But it's as damaging as any physical injury.
If not more.
Right. People do not understand the severity of the damage inflicted upon these men and women, mentally and physically. It's just so much easier to look at that photo of Blake and see some sort of stoicism, or determination. I just see exhaustion.
Or resignation. He looks really detached.
You've already written your next album, right?
Not only is it written, but we're recording it the week before SXSW in March at Hawthorne Bridge Studios in Portland with Jordan Richter, who was the engineer on Nowhere Nights. He moved out here from Nashville a while back.
We'll see how it goes. We tried to make the record once already, up in Bellingham when I came back to the country for a week last summer. But I hear this album in my head and I haven't been able to explain it to anyone else, to really describe the sound I'm looking for. So we'll try this. If it sucks, well, I won't have anyone to blame but myself. Right now I need to be in a situation where I am the only person who can be held accountable for whether the songs succeed or fail.
What have you been listening to lately?
Lightnin' Hopkins. Soon, it's going to get to the point where I will speak exclusively in Lightnin' Hopkins song titles. Which is okay, because there are enough of them. Before that, I was listening to Darlene Love for two months or so. Also, a guy named Michael Hurley, who plays around Portland a lot.
Let's talk about geography. I'm from the northeast and I love music that comes out of the south and southeast, and I wasn't exposed to that stuff growing up. You're from the northwest but musically you're akin to a lot of artists coming out of the southeast. Where do you think that affinity comes from? Where does your sound come from?
I guess it comes from the way I've always looked at music, which to me is carrying on a tradition. There's a lineage here, from early Irish folk tunes to Guthrie to Dylan and so on. Springsteen seems to understand that. He also really understands what it means to be a performer. He's got that duality where he can make a record of folk songs, or a quiet record like Ghost of Tom Joad, and then turn around and make a record of these enormous, sweeping anthems.
Actually, Springsteen seems to understand most everything there is to understand.
There is also a vulnerability to a lot of the music you like – bands like Whiskeytown or the Backsliders and now bands like American Aquarium or Two Cow Garage. Those records are really vulnerable, but it's not disingenuous the way a lot of records are. Like, John Mayer's single "Who Says I Can't Get Stoned?" Nobody, John. There is nobody telling John Mayer he can't get stoned. Don't bitch about your lonely heart and then spend fifteen minutes describing sex with Jessica Simpson to Playboy. It's insulting. You’re not going to hear that kind of thing when you listen to Micah Schnabel or Jason Isbell.
I agree. I always think that about this genre. You have these guys who come across super tough, who have sleeves of tattoos and live in a van with five other guys. And then they get up on stage and sing really authentically about their ex-girlfriends and their mom.
Well, yeah, but those guys probably get shit from the band for singing about girls and their mom.
And then there's Ben Nichols (of Lucero), who just took it to the next level and wrote a song called "Mom" in which he sings directly to his mom.
Yes, he just cut out the middle man. Stop writing about girls who represent your mom and just write about your mom.
I should maybe listen to that album more. That was such a ridiculous issue, about them having horns on their album. Why is that upsetting to anyone?
I agree. And that they signed to a major label. Well, they sort of did, but they've been working their asses off for a dozen years, living in a van. They deserve it. Give them money!
I never understood that. Especially growing up around here in the 90's when Nirvana and Pearl Jam exploded. Kids would say "I don't listen to them anymore because they sold a million records." What the hell do I care? It's not like you buy the record and then those million people come over to your house and hang out while you listen to it. I listened to Nirvana because they made good records. You love these guys, so you want them to be poor forever? What is that?
You spoke earlier about a legacy and a lineage of musicians. Where do you hope to fit into that?
That's a hard question. I want to be able to write one of those songs that other songwriters want to cover.
Steve Earle's "Goodbye".
I love Steve Earle, and he had a great run of albums, and then sort of moved into 21st century protest singer mode, which can get sort of tiresome.
You have to understand, Steve Earle was 14 years old in 1969, when people were in the streets, demonstrating and singing and trying to bring an end to that war. Protest songs worked then, and he saw them work, so he's coming from that place with those records. Those songs needed to be written, and Steve didn't write three records of the same song. He wrote those songs really effectively.
There is a different way to do it, though. I’ve written protest songs. "The Reckoning" is a protest song. "Blake's Song" is a protest song. Songs like that, they work better when you get away from platitudes like “war is bad; Bush is an asshole; old white men are greedy." People don't relate to that. People don't respond to rhetoric.
Agreed. But you can use songs as a way to intelligently connect to people and get a message across.
Exactly. Otherwise, you're just singing to yourself and for yourself, and I'm not interested in doing that.