Slaid Cleaves On Songwriting, the Folk Tradition, and Painfully Intimate Lyrics
When Slaid Cleaves started writing songs, he would just come up with new verses to Hank Williams’ tunes. Once he had three or four verses, he would change the melody slightly, and— voilá—he had a song.
“I used to feel guilty about that,” Cleaves says with a laugh. “But then I heard Pete Seeger describe it as the folk process.”
The Austin-based singer-songwriter no longer has to borrow from Williams for his material—he’s now an expert songsmith known for distilling profound truths into uncomplicated lyrics. But his songs, which come to listeners polished to a shine, are the result of a lot of trial and error, failure and frustration.
Cleaves explains that songs start with tiny ideas that he hopes to flesh out. His process of marrying one phrase onto another, trying new ideas, rejecting ideas, and swapping them out for new ones takes a lot of time and a lot of mistakes. Singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier’s estimate of a song taking about 40 hours to create seems about right to Cleaves, but sometimes it takes him a lot longer. The song “Texas Love Song,” which appears on his new album Still Fighting the War, took the better part of a decade to finish.
“I started that song 10 years ago,” he says. “I had the concept and I knew there was something there, but I couldn’t solve it. It’s like a crossword puzzle that you just have to put away for a while.”
A key to writing a good song, says Cleaves, is to lower his critical eye in the early stages. But once he gets rolling, he shifts gears and puts a “cold, critical eye on every phrase.” He works to make it the best language possible and make sure it makes sense to the audience. Then he lets it go. Cleaves turns to a quote that’s been attributed to a number of different people to describe this last step, saying, “Writers don’t finish their poems, they abandon them.”
On Still Fighting the War, Cleaves takes on tough topics including broken dreams, social injustice, family ruts and inner battles. The title track is about a soldier’s struggles, both internal and external, when returning home from war. One of many striking lines in the songs is, “Men go off to war for a hundred reasons / But they all come home with the same demons.”
The album has been called Cleaves’ most political work yet, but he says it wasn’t intended to be.
“I’m surprised when people talk about that song, or this album, being political,” he says. “I’m not taking sides, I’m not advocating for anything, I’m just painting a picture of something that’s very common: veterans coming home, having problems, and not getting the help they need.”
He points out that this is an age-old problem, and that even Odysseus had problems coming home from war—and was still having problems 20 years later.
“It’s not controversial at all,” Cleaves says, “except in the sense that it’s a critique of the government and society for letting people down who’ve put themselves on the line.” He pauses. “So yes, I guess it is political.”
In addition to the heavy subject matter on Still Fighting the War, there are a few light-hearted songs, including “Texas Love Song,” a proclamation of love centered around the hook, “I love you even more than I love Texas,” and “God’s Own Yodeler,” a tribute to the late Don Walser, an under-appreciated, Texas-based country music artist who Cleaves befriended before Walser’s death in 2006.
Tucked at the end of the album is “Voice of Midnight,” a haunting and beautiful glimpse into the mind of someone who is about to die. Cleaves was hesitant to include the song on the album, but says it’s one of the two or three songs that gets the most attention from listeners.
“I felt it was almost too direct, too personal,” he says. “It’s almost painfully intimate—that’s why I was afraid to record it.”
In the end, the song is a quiet standout of the album; a reminder of Cleaves’ gift for revealing universal truths to listeners.
“It’s not my job to tell you how I feel,” he says. “It’s my job to tell you how you feel.”
This article originally appeared in the Good Times Weekly