Carrie Rodriguez is one of maybe two thousand performers (slight exaggeration) getting ready to converge on Seattle for the annual behemoth Bumbershoot Festival. She'll be joining a roster that includes acts as diverse as Sheryl Crow and Modest Mouse, Old 97s, Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women, Vieux Farka Toure, Todd Snider and on and on. (A full list is available at the Bumbershoot website.)
In the coming weeks, I'll be posting my interviews with a number of the festival's best Americana artists. First up is Texas-bred Brooklyn resident Carrie Rodriguez, who will be warming things up for John Prine on a number of dates this month, before pulling into Seattle with her full band. Here's a video of her with Prine earlier this year, followed by the full interview transcript below:
You’re touring a lot and have been doing a bunch of solo and trio shows, but at Bumbershoot, you’ll have the full band...
Yeah we’ve actually done a number of shows with the band – guitar, bass, drums, and myself. I love playing with the band, I just can’t always make it work in terms of being on tour and the financial situation. But, it’ll be fun to rock out at Bumbershoot for sure.
Do you prefer playing with the band over solo shows?
I think a year ago, I’d have said I always prefer to have a full band. Because the economy started getting tougher, I had to scale down from full band to duo shows. At first that really frightened me…but I’ve learned so much from doing that. It’s made me a stronger player so that when I do get back together with the full band, I have more to offer musically. I really value both. I think I'll continue to do different kinds of groups. It helps me stretch as a musician. It also helps the song. If you’ve been playing the same tunes for a while, it definitely helps take them in a different direction when you change the musical situation.
Are you still playing a lot of the songs from She Ain’t Me? Is there a lot of new material in the works?
I do a lot of She Ain’t Me tunes and tunes from my first album Seven Angels on a Bicycle, but I’ve been trying out some new songs. I’ve got a couple projects in the works. One is an album of original songs that’s taking a while to write. Hopefully by this winter I’ll be ready to record. I’m also working on an album of cover songs that I love to play. Over the years, I’ve accumulated quite a few covers that have become part of my show. Sometimes I forget I didn’t write them because they feel like my songs after a while. I want to find a place to record them. I think we’re going to do that in September. I’ve got tunes from Lucinda Williams, old country songs, there’s an old Merle tune that I love to do. I’m singing one in Spanish. My great aunt was a great singer. She recorded in Spanish. She was on Columbia [Records] back in the '30s and '40s, so it’s some of her music.
How does playing those cover songs affect your songwriting? Or does it?
It definitely does. I have to say one of the most dramatic changes I’ve seen from playing these covers has been singing in Spanish. The first tune I sang in Spanish was a real challenge for me. I felt like I became a different person when I sang in Spanish. I speak Spanish at home. My husband is from Spain so we speak Spanglish at the house. In thinking about lyrics in Spanish, I think it made me change the way I approach lyric writing. There’s an element of drama in these older Spanish ballads that I’m very drawn to and I have a feeling it’s turned things inside out on some tunes I’ve been working on lately. Also it’s amazing to sing a song like that Lucinda Williams tune. I do “Steal Your Love” and I think I could sing it two thousand more times and not get sick of it. The lyrics are so beautiful and there’s such simple poetry…I don’t know if that’ll affect my songwriting, but hopefully…
You wrote with some amazing writers on the last record. Are you working with those folks again or writing a lot on your own?
I’ve been writing more on my own, but I do hope to work some more with the people I worked with on She Ain’t Me. I’m planning a trip to Minneapolis in the fall to write with Gary Louris again and Dan Wilson. Actually there’s a guy in a band called Romantica – a Minneapolis band – and I’m hoping to write with him, too. His name is Ben Kyle and I’m a big fan of his band. Minneapolis is such an amazing town for music. I keep spending more and more time out there.
There does seem to be a lot of really great songwriters coming out of there now, Americana folks...
Yeah, it’s amazing. Growing up in Austin, Tex., I always thought Austin was the only place. Or at least the only place that counted. Now I’m learning a lot from those Minneapolis guys. And I’ll probably go down to Nashville too. I’ve really enjoyed writing with Mary Gauthier. That was a great experience, so hopefully I can do some more of that.
Do you think where you are impacts how you write?
It does. I spent a lot of time holed up in my apartment in Brooklyn when I wrote She Ain’t Me. I feel it when I hear the music. It’s definitely more of an introspective album coming from a colder climate. I can just feel it. Especially the song “Absence” is coming form that place of feeling like a fall day. I’m in Austin right now and toying with the idea of moving back here. I’m going to spend some time here in the fall and that probably will impact the songs. It’ll be interesting to see how much.
I saw that you’re touring with John Prine this summer. How did you hook up with him?
I first met John when I was playing with Chip Taylor. One of my first gigs with Chip was opening for John Prine back in 2001 or 2002 - we opened for him in the UK. I got offered to do some gigs with him this last year. I did maybe five or six. It’s a beautiful experience opening for him. His crowds are full of songwriters who just listen to every word. Getting to hear John Prine every night is pure joy. [On] the last few gigs, I got to get up and sing some duets with him, which was exciting. We did "In Spite of Ourselves," and then did a song with Iris DeMent called “Unwed Fathers” – a beautiful tune. I’m really looking forward to it. I was honored he called me for this tour in Canada. He doesn’t usually tour, he usually just does weekends. It’ll be interesting being out with him so long and I'm looking forward to what might happen.
I can’t imagine you could walk away from that without being inspired as a songwriter.
Yeah, absolutely. I feel very lucky right now. There’s no one I’d rather be learning from at the moment. It’s just such an amazing opportunity. I’m looking forward to it, to that life.
What do you think makes a song a good song?
One major thing is the ability of songs to touch people. That’s so obvious, but I tend to like more simple songs that immediately go to my emotional core. That, to me, is what makes a song great. There are so many Townes Van Zandt songs that do that right off the bat. Chip Taylor has written so many songs like that, and John Prine too. Also I like a song that can affect people from all different kinds of backgrounds. You don’t have to have a certain kind of upbringing or social status to be affected by those songs, and I think that’s pretty incredible. Universal songs like that are hard to come by. I really appreciate people who can write like that.
Is anything off limits for you when you’re writing? Is there a part of your life that you’ll never sing about?
Not really [laughs]. I’m pretty open about my life.
There are certain writers who are good at writing about other people’s lives. They can read a newspaper article and use their imagination to put themselves inside the story and write a whole song about it. I think that’s wonderful but I don’t know how to do that. So far, I tend to write from personal experience. Every once in a while, it doesn’t go over well with certain loved ones of mine, people close to me who might know the song is about them. It’s not like I name names. I try to be aware of other people’s feelings. Maybe I’ll grow into being able to write other kinds of songs that aren’t about personal experience. I’m still a new writer. I feel extremely green. I started out as an instrumentalist, a side man. This whole songwriting thing, I feel like I’m still starting out.
Has it changed the way you listen to music, to have become a writer?
First of all, I used to listen to mostly instrumental music for many years. I studied classical violin and then jazz and fiddle music. So I always listened to world music, a lot of jazz. I was a huge Bill Frisell fan. I still listen to that but, when I started writing songs, I realized I had missed out on a lot of great music. I’ve been going back and listening to albums that have inspired songwriters I really respect. Chip Taylor is a huge John Prine fan and he probably turned me onto John more than anyone else. My dad is a singer-songwriter, so I’ve been listening to his music more lately, learning things from that that I didn’t appreciate when I was growing up.
You seem like someone who’s not married to the idea of making a certain style of music…
I hate labeling music. I listen to all different kinds of music. I can’t even say there’s one specific style I listen to more than another. I think I would just get bored if I tried to stick too closely to a specific genre. There will always be people who hear me and immediately think I play country music because I play the fiddle and maybe I have a little bit of a twang because I'm from Texas. That’s fine, but in my mind, I’m coming from all different kinds of styles and traditions, and learning from all different styles. Hopefully I can keep doing that and find my own way, find my own genre.
What are your three favorite albums in the world right now?
Oh God, okay. Let’s see. One I’ll always go back to and never get tired of would be the Bill Frisell album with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones. The trio album. It’s a classic in my mind. I can put it on anytime, no matter what mood I’m in, and it transports me. Another one of my all-time favorite albums is Johhny Hartman and John Coltrane. It’s gorgeous. I love the way Coltrane plays sax on that record. It’s so unusual the way he plays around the lyrics and the melody line. It’s not what you’re expecting and it’s just gorgeous. And then, for new records, I think the Alison Krauss and Robert Plant album [Raising Sand] is really good. I loved the vibe they got on each tune. The sound of the instruments is so good. The groove is so sexy. It’s so hard to pick just three albums, though. Those are three great ones. I feel good about those three.
Stay tuned for more interviews with Bumbershoot artists in the coming weeks.