A Conversation with Thad Cockrell
Thad Cockrell has made a lot of music in his time — from the early country of Stack of Dreams to the modern pop of his latest project Leagues — but with excellent songwriting the entire way. I got to talk to him about the journey of songwriting, inspiration, and an ever-evolving process.
I was born in Kansas City and moved to Tampa, Florida when I was 9. I grew up in a non musical household — I don’t know if I have ever walked into my house and heard my parents playing music because they wanted to hear music. There was no secular music in the house either.
How did you get introduced to music? What was influential early on?
Church was my earliest exposure. I have always been completely obsessed with music. I have an older brother, and he would listen to some stuff, but it wasn’t like “this is the Beatles”. It was primarily Kenny Rogers, country music stuff. Country was my first love, but I grew up listening to absolutely everything. Even from age 7 or 8, I would go up and down the radio dial not caring about genres, just looking for songs. From the outside, my musical journey looks like a crazy departure from where I started, but it really reflects me growing up, pushing my car down the street so my parents couldn’t hear my start it and listen to country late into the night. I loved Merle Haggard and Alabama, but I would dance with my friends at dance clubs in predominantly black clubs, then I would listen to The Cure on the way home. Looking back it seems crazy, but it seems to be most people’s story.
It seems like we have only started the micro-genres in the past decade.
Oh yeah, it drives me crazy. There starts to get this feeling of an inside joke with music — like this is “just for us”. Great art gets people in the room that you wouldn’t expect. To me, thats the music that is interesting. All the different expressions.
You said something interesting — surfing up and down the radio dial, you would stop at great songs. How did you learn to recognize great songs?
Plato said “All learning is remembering”, and I believe that. We have a gift, then we take it over like it is our own creation, and then we just get out of the way.
Are there songs that you remember as being some of the first great songs that you remember?
Fleetwood Mac, Dreams. I have heard that song 10,000 times, and every time I hear it its like the first kiss all over again. Tears for Fears “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. The first time I heard that, I knew it was something special. I was telling someone the other day — The La’s, “There She Goes”. I heard that song way before it was a big song, and thinking “that’s a hit”.
From my understanding, you started writing in college?
It was just after college. I was at the tail end of my last semester and I wrote this song. I didn’t even know how to play the guitar, but I finished college and moved to this small town of Wake Forest, North Carolina. I was painting houses, and I don’t know what I was thinking, but I signed up to play this coffee shop. They offered to pay me $25 and if it went well, I could play the whole school year. I knew four and a half songs, so I started writing and recording all at the same time.
What was the inspiration for that first song?
It was so weird for me to think creatively. I didn’t have a nurturing family in that way. Without sounding arrogant, I felt like I would be good at songwriting even though I had never done it. It was a wrestling match for me, but one day I was in class and I had this melody and wrote the lyrics. I went to a friend who helped me figure it out on the guitar and that was my first song. After I did that, it put a crack in the dam. Two songs later, it was a geyser and it has never stopped. Those first songs that I recorded are on a record called Stack of Dreams. Somehow that recording started getting around to radio and MOJO magazine, which I subscribed to, put it in their top 10 country records of the year. I hadn’t even told my parents that I was doing music, because they would just tell me to grow up. I just started sending them the reviews.
And those were your first songs that made it to that record?
Yes — I was totally naive. I sang everything live, right there with the producer’s dog, which I was allergic to. I only had enough money for four hours of recording time. I had no business being there. It was like waking up and knowing a language that you had never studied.
It seems like it might be validating too.
It was very validating, very encouraging, and it made sense of my musical obsession. I knew that I was meant to do it. No one in my family had ever done anything artistic for a living, so it felt strange.
Those first records had a very strong country influence.
It was my starting point. I love country, and I thought I could write that. I feel like that was the wrong decision at this point. I was doing something that I knew how to do, and now I feel like to be truly creative, you have to do something you don’t know how to do. That’s what is compelling about Leagues, is that the whole process is different. It all feels new again.
Those first two records were done with Chris Stamey, right?
I did the first two with him, yes. Stack of Dreams was first, and my second record was Warmth and Beauty. I moved here to Nashville and did a record with Caitlin Cary called Begonias, which I co-produced with Brad Jones.
What was the idea behind a record of duets?
It was more out of practicality — she and I were on the same label, and we both needed to deliver a record. We had become close friends in Raleigh, where nobody was cowriting. We had a standing cowrite on Saturdays. I called the head of Yep Roc and he agreed. We wrote six more songs really quickly. I knew that I no longer wanted to go down the path of being a solo artist. I had painted myself into the corner of country music, but I still listened to everything. I played along with it for a bit, but then I saw the expectations that come with that and said “no”. I started writing songs I didn’t know how to write.
Is cowriting something that comes easy for you?
It comes easy for me. I don’t do it anymore — or rarely. I have to feel really compelled. I realized that I only have one pot to dip out of — if I am writing for other people, I am basically writing Thad Cockrell songs. Just because I can doesn’t mean I should. Since Leagues began, I have been asked a lot, and I respectfully decline.
What does your process look like?
With Leagues, I want to do as little as possible before bringing an idea to them. Those guys have such a huge part of the process that I don’t want to refine anything beforehand. If I have a lyric idea, I don’t try to attach any melody to it at all.
I have heard Patty Griffin say she doesn’t write things down until they are fully formed, because if she forgets it, it wasn’t worth remembering.
Not just lyrics, but melody. My role in Leagues is lyrics and melody, and so I take that very seriously.
You mentioned your “geyser” of songs. Have you just primed the pump enough to be constantly inspired?
I think people, including myself, should be quieter more often and for longer periods. Before Leagues, I didn’t write anything for seven months. I just read and listened to people. I don’t want to write for just me, I want to write for “us” — the big inclusive us. If you listen long enough, threads start showing up. You will hear something at a coffeeshop, and the same thing from a friend in your car, and the same thing on NPR. I think songs are a gift — the best ones are the ones that “just happened”, and you have to be content to wait for that. For me, songs often start with a big vat of words, and by the time it is done, the words will distill themselves into the songs.
I know for some people, its a work ethic. They have to spend time every day on it. Is it more of a lightning strike inspiration for you?
Yes. It has taught me to work quickly and to trust myself as well.
Tell me about To Be Loved. What was the genesis of that?
You can hear the clues for Leagues in that record. It’s like my halfway house.
Was that intentional, or just the way the songs were coming?
It was intentional. I didn’t know where I was going, but the thing that was intentional was that I had become the song factory, writing songs all day, so I just started going on walks to move my writing to a different realm. That songwriting process was the idea that has carried through Leagues.
I heard you talk about Phases and Stages as a reference point for that record. You can almost see the chains of genre shake off on that record.
What’s interesting is that I became friends with Willie’s daughter. We would geek out over her dad’s records, and before we hung out, I just confessed that I was probably the biggest Willie fan on Earth. I asked her what her dad’s favorite record of his was, and she said Yesterday’s Wine, which I had never heard of. I was on the phone in the car while we were talking, so I stopped in a record store in Chapel Hill and bought it right there. I asked why her dad thought it was so important, and she said it was because after that record, he realized he could do anything, that there were no boundaries. From that came Phases and Stages, and then Shotgun Willie.
Did those songs come over a period of time?
Yes — what I learned from it was that older songs that I sat down and tried to finish didn’t compare to the ones that just came naturally. I can think through all the other ones, and I realized that if a line seems written, then I can tell.
Does it help you or hurt you to listen to music while you are in a creative zone?
I think most of the time I am not listening to music — I am trying to hear what is going on in my own head. I take periods of time where I don’t listen to anything.
So then comes Leagues. Was it an intentional thing?
Definitely. The songs that were coming to me were not singer songwriter songs. I saw Jeremy Lutito play in 2005 with a really well known band, and the only interesting thing about the show was coming from his drum kit. I thought that if I ever had a band, he would be my guy. I mentioned that to a friend who was the original bass player in Leagues and we started concocting the idea of a band. I went and talked to Jeremy about it, and he asked who I thought might play guitar. I mentioned Tyler Burkum, and Jeremy laughed — he and Tyler had been playing for the same artist and had been jamming on and off for the past two years. We all met in town — the most important thing you can do is show up — and immediately it felt like something else was in the room besides us. We did that for eight or nine months, got the songs, and recorded the EP. That kept opening up doors, and here we are. This absolutely could not have happened with anyone else.
So you take these raw ideas that you have intentionally not touched, and end up with songs. What is that process like?
We are all gifted at different things. One of the things that we make sure of is that anyone who is touching this project is only tasked with their strong suit. For me, that is lyrics and melody, and thats what I bring to the table. It’s not all cut and dry — one of my favorite lyrics on the record is something Tyler wrote. But that’s how it begins. Jeremy is a great arranger and programmer, Tyler comes up with the bass and guitar, so everyone is standing on different bases. It takes a lot of trust.
Have focusing your writing efforts on Leagues shut off the singer songwriter side?
Every now and again, I do a song that doesn’t sound like Leagues and I’ll record it. With the other guys, the only way we are going to do this is if we keep doing what we have always done. There are ideas that we have even come up with together that we liked, but isn’t what we are going for in this setting, so we don’t use it.
Does writing Leagues songs lead to writing more Leagues songs?
I think that’s true in general — say something out loud that you are going to accomplish, and you will probably do it. One of the things that we say is that there is a little kid in all of our hearts that is stitching together their own version of their superheroes. At some point you floated it out there and got made fun of or told it was too ridiculous, so you hid it away again. For all of us on the team, that’s what we want to bring out. It’s a scary thing, a vulnerable thing, but its a big part of the spirit behind what we are doing.
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