Cruz Contreras of the Black Lillies: Songwriter’s Showcase
This week we have two songwriters to feature on Songwriter’s Showcase, since both of these artists will be performing in Knoxville, TN, this weekend at the Rhythm N’ Blooms Festival. Today I caught up with Cruz Contreras of the Black Lillies.
Born in the rumbling cab of a stone truck and aged in the oak of Tennessees smoky night haunts, The Black Lillies have quickly risen to the forefront of the Americana scene. Founded by multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Cruz Contreras (co-founder of Robinella and the CCstringband), The Black Lillies have created their own unique brand of country, roots, rock and blues via Appalachia. The group, formed in 2008, also includes electric guitar and pedal steel whiz Tom Pryor and drummer Jamie Cook, both formerly of the everybodyfields, bassist Robert Richards, and vocalist Trisha Gene Brady.In April 2009, The Black Lillies released Whiskey Angel, their debut recording, which was recorded live in Cruz’s living room. The album received rave reviews and appeared on multiple “Best of 2009″ lists across the country, winning the Independent Music Award for Best Album, Americana. The band’s current album, 100 Miles of Wreckage, has been nominated for multiple awards and spent more than five months on the Americana radio Top 40 charts – four of them in the top 20 – once again proving that a band with this much spirit can break through traditional industry boundaries to achieve success without the constraints of a major label.
Songbirds & Seagulls:What was the first original song you started performing?
Cruz Contreras:See Right Through was the first song I wrote. I played it on The Blue Plate Special on WDVX on New Year’s Eve 2008. It was also one of the first times I sang in public … probably the third. I was nervous as could be … but it was an amazing rush. It’s the second track on Whiskey Angel, The Black Lillies’ debut record. I’ll forever be proud of it … love the potential for a jam at the end.
Songbirds & Seagulls:Please tell us about your songwriting process. Does the melody come first? The lyrics? Do they come at the same time? If not, how and when do you decide to combine the two?
Cruz Contreras:The songwriting process for me begins in the gut. If I wake up one day and things look just a little extra vivid … that’s a good time to write. If I’m in the zone the lyrics and music happen simultaneously. That’s the way I like it … it’s the most efficient. One cool thing that happens is sometimes I’ll write a song that may have a somber, or musically traditional feel to it – in this case I’m giving the most attention to lyrics. Then on another day if I’m in a more spirited mood, I can pump up the music with a beat or edgier form. Kinda like chocolate and peanut butter. Best of both worlds.
Songbirds & Seagulls:Do you think your songwriting improves over time in a linear fashion, or do you think that some songs are just randomly better than others because of your inspiration or some other factor?
Cruz Contreras:Ooh … here comes self-analyzation. First of all .. take advantage of beginner’s luck. It was really nice writing when no one else was concerned; only the pressure I put on myself. As time goes by you become self-aware. I love music so much, and writing makes me so happy. I’ve decided no matter how conscious I am, I’m gonna get over myself and every doubt and fear, and keep doing it to the best of my abilities. Your skills as a writer certainly should improve over time. Personally, I give preference to all the passing inspirations in life which are begging to be expressed through art. They are fleeting…and we’re all free to let ’em float on by. (Sorry for the mush.)
Songbirds & Seagulls:What are the triggers that inspire you to write songs?
Cruz Contreras:Alcohol … well it used to be … wore that one out. Sadness … not interested in that any more. General health, happiness and energy and having nothing to do for a while with a guitar around … thinking of my son … family … women … dancing … mountains, rivers, great musicians, my band, harmony, heartbreak, parties, festivals, studios, necessity, poverty, hunger, war, life, salvation, air, dirt, greenery, and all of it!
Songbirds & Seagulls:Do you ever get that sense about a song that “this is a good one?” Have you published every song you’ve ever written, and, if not, how do you decide which ones are keepers? If one isn’t a keeper, do you ever revise it over time or do you just scrap it? Cruz Contreras: I try to focus on the keepers. It goes back to that initial conviction. I think my dad said “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” He’s right. Most songs I’ve written are or will be published. There’s a few I never gave up on though … and it’s definitely worth it whether it needs revising, or just time to be relevant. And sometimes you do know it’s a “good one”… I suppose be real grateful for those.
Songbirds & Seagulls:Who are some of your favorite songwriters?
Cruz Contreras:Willie, Townes, John Prine, Patty Griffin, Merle Haggard, Hank, Darrell Scott, Lucinda, Jack White, Iris Dement, Dwight, Eugene Hutz and Madonna … oh yeah … and the gazillions of songsters doing their thing up ’til about a hundred years ago that were never recorded or documented.
Songbirds & Seagulls:What advice would you give to beginner songwriters? Do you have any tips that you’ve found helpful over time? I know there isn’t a formula for writing a great song, but surely you could impart some knowledge to folks who are just getting started.
Cruz Contreras:Don’t give a hoot about what anybody thinks about what you create or write. If you really do that you’ll probably either make mind blowing, earth shattering rock n roll or something incredibly unpopular. Regardless, you’ll be proud of it and comfortable with performing or putting something out there that’s honest. Some of my dear friends would puke if they heard me say this … but follow your heart. Know and believe what you create, and be honest with yourself – especially technically. And learn from the greats … there’s nothing wrong with channeling their spirits; we all have our own voice … and luckily it’s difficult to get away from.
Songbirds & Seagulls:Did you have any mentors in your early career? If so, who were they and how did they help you?
Cruz Contreras:You must nearly always have a mentor. This has the most to do with developing skills. As a writer, the songs themselves are the mentor. I won’t be hanging out with Johnny Cash this week … but I can listen to his songs. The mentors in my life are overwhelming. My dad was the first. He made a deal with me – everytime I signed up for baseball I had to sign up for piano lessons for him. I wanted to play baseball so much I didn’t think twice. When I look back on that, I have to smile, because I am certainly not a professional baseball player! Thanks, dad.
Songbirds & Seagulls:Have you been writing any songs recently? If so, do you have plans to record again soon?
Cruz Contreras:I’ve got a whole new batch of songs for a new record we’ll record this year, and some of them have even improved in a linear fashion! The band is familiar already with most of them, but that’s nice because we’ll get some real depth when we record. I would also like to have twice the songs, as in brand new, to throw on – something fresh that puts everyone on their toes. Guess I’d better get busy!
Buy the Black Lillies music here: http://www.theblacklillies.com
© clementine cox (oh your darlin’ publications, volume 6)