Laurie & John Stirratt – Out of the blue
When Laurie Stirratt launched her new life in 2002, it was like going home. Chicago welcomed her like a prodigal daughter, she got a job at the Hideout (a favorite watering hole among Chicago music scenesters), and she began writing and recording with her twin brother, Wilco bassist John Stirratt.
From her early ’90s beginnings in Mississippi band the Hilltops through the mid-late ’90s glory days of Blue Mountain, Laurie was a fixture in alt-country circles. Her move to Chicago followed the 2001 dissolution of Blue Mountain, which had been precipitated by a split with her longtime husband and bandmate Cary Hudson.
She’s come through that rough patch fine, probably no worse than anyone else who’s traveled from 20 to 35 or so. With John, she’s also released a new record, Arabella, and launched a record label, Broadmoor, which released Arabella in late September. (The label’s first release was a gatefold vinyl edition of Circles by the Autumn Defense, John’s side-project band of the past few years.)
Compared to John’s sublime pop work with the Autumn Defense, and Laurie’s electric and electrifying Blue Mountain past, Arabella is relatively folky and subdued, but with inventive and sometimes intricate arrangements. It’s delivered with the maturity one might expect of seasoned artists.
“I think the music [is] reflecting on some things that have happened over the past few years,” Laurie says, “and sort of coming to terms with things that you have to deal with as an adult in your mid-30s: Loss of a parent, the aging thing,” Laurie says. “You know, when you’re young confidence is kind of blind, and when you get a little older you lose it a little bit and you’re a little more aware of, I think, your shortcomings and also the problems that life has to offer. I think you lose a little bit of that naive quality and, I don’t know, it’s just that life is a little scarier in some ways.”
It helps to have siblings who can see each other through. “I…just value the time we get to spend together so much and I never get tired of him,” Laurie acknowledges. “He’s one of the only people I can say that about.”
The pair had long been wishing they could write together more. Laurie’s move to Chicago, where John had moved in the late ’90s as Wilco progressed, made that possible over the winter of 2003-2004. The result was Arabella, named for a street in their native New Orleans.
“I did find it really interesting to make a record with her,” John says, “just to find out how symbiotic it would be. I kind of learned that we have a really easygoing manner. We don’t let things bother us very much. I think I’m a little more intense than she is. I guess we’ve learned a few things about each other but it was great. I learned that she makes the best Hot Toddy, and that she definitely sticks to her guns more than I do.”
Many of the songs on Arabella have been around a while in different forms. Blue Mountain previously released Laurie’s “When You’re Not Mine” with a different vocal arrangement on Tales Of A Traveler; Courtesy Move (John’s short-lived side project with then-Wilco members Ken Coomer and Jay Bennett) once recorded John’s “Juniper” but never released it.
Laurie wrote the tender opening track “Ten Years Ago Today” three years ago, about the death of their mother; John encouraged her to finish it. Nowhere on Arabella is their brother-sister harmony stronger than on this song of shared loss.
Both had other songs and fragments they worked out together, and both tell amusing stories of a driving trip in 2001 that yielded many of the arrangements. “We drove from New Orleans to Chicago and we kind of arranged pretty much all of the songs in the car, strumming, taking turns driving,” John recalls. “There was a lot of motion. I’d never actually worked in the car before!” Laurie remembers trying to see around the guitar headstock during her turns at the wheel.
It’s fitting that much of the music was written on the road, given that both Laurie and John can relate intimately to extensive touring with a band. Arabella is loaded with place names from their journeys, and the traveling theme is carried through on the cover art, which features vintage postcards.
But, as with their lives, the theme takes different turns for each of them. John wrote his sophisticated, articulate and mysterious “Mistral”, for instance, during a stay in Cassis on the coast of France after a Wilco tour. Speaking of the region’s storied Mistral wind, John says, “It’s a cold wind, but weirdly, as hot as it can be in the summer when it happens. It’s always conducive to…songwriting. Usually after Wilco tours I just hang out in Europe and try to write. That’s been one luxury that the band has afforded me — the ability to hang out in foreign countries after tours. Travel is definitely inspiring to me in that way.”
By contrast, Laurie’s “We’ll Meet Again” is a driving and gritty slice of her California life, with vivid imagery — “A dry and lonely Barstow day…from the swimming sunset/Night appeared, streaked in from the east like a blue charger” — and a resonant hook: “Thirty-one years in the desert/It was the first time in my life I was alone.”
Laurie says she started that song ten years ago but didn’t finish it until that long drive from New Orleans. “Cary and I did live in California,” Laurie explains, “so that definitely came into it, and that song is basically about my relationship.” Her “Can’t Stand Yourself” likely came from the same place.
Though Laurie had co-written songs with Hudson in Blue Mountain, her contributions to Arabella marked the first time she’d taken the lead as a writer. “I was really impressed with just how succinct everything was,” John says of her songwriting. “There was this great first-person kind of economy to it.”
“Writing for me is a really tough thing,” Laurie confesses, “because I tend to edit too much, and it’s nice to have John to run the stuff by because he’s a really great songwriter. I used to tear out pages and throw them away. I just keep everything now. I’m just trying to be more disciplined. It’s the only way to get better, doing it regularly and sticking with it.”
If writing is still a struggle, her solo singing has grown effortless and natural. “It was something I’d wanted to do, but early on I didn’t have the confidence in my voice to do it,” she says. “I just sort of worked through that, and John was very encouraging.”
Laurie and John produced the record with Pat Sansone, John’s partner in the Autumn Defense and a recent addition to the Wilco fold. “He’s invaluable in the studio,” says Laurie. “A lot of it we did up at the Wilco loft. We’d go in there and it would be just us three, and the way it fell together was unreal.
“We did have some different takes of a few songs that we ended up feeling were not appropriate. So we went back and kind of refigured things and re-recorded, but it was really so much fun because it went so smoothly and things just felt really natural. It was one of the most pleasant recording situations I’ve ever had.”
For such intimate, personal songs, the arrangements on Arabella are unusually elaborate, but tastefully so. “I just liked the idea of a lot of people playing smaller sounds,” John says. “Basically we had had such great luck with the Autumn Defense band,” he adds, citing the contributions on Arabella from Sansone, drummer Greg Wiz, bassist Brad Jones and pedal steel player John Pirruccello.
The Stirratts augmented that core with sessions involving a number of other accomplished Chicago locals, including, on one track or another, all of Wilco (which at the time included Leroy Bach, who contributes a memorable bass part on what John calls the “pseudo-Faces vibe” of “Canadian Noon”) plus Ryan Hembry, the Chicago indie community’s go-to guy on upright bass.
“We were just interested in getting some guys that we knew that could deliver this material in a bigger studio where you’re paying a little more money and basically a bigger ensemble in the studio, and could make suggestions and had a chemistry,” John says. “The kind of players those guys are, they’re such great ensemble players, they know how to pick their spots and play off of each other a la Nashville, especially in the ’70s.”
Or perhaps slightly later; for instance, John says the Arabella track “Solid Land” “is so 1980s Nashville. It’s just Wurlitzer and pedal steel together. We were laughing at the end of that wondering if we could release it or not. That’s our idea of outrageousness. It’s so Mickey Gilley, like a Waylon session where there’s flange on every guitar track. Like ‘Are You Ready For The Country’ Waylon.
“I’m just a fan of some of those Nashville records from that period, from 1982 or something, where Nashville was behind the times enough that it was still all analog, like keyboards were just behind the times enough that the glitz hadn’t come in.”
Audiences aren’t likely to see this large sound in a live setting. In fact the Stirratts haven’t decided on a conventional tour to promote the record, largely because of John’s touring commitments with Wilco. The conflict, though, is not entirely a bad thing. A band could do worse than have its merch promoted with Wilco shows.
“We’ll do a few dates,” John says. “Whether it’s acoustic or with a band remains to be seen. We just hope a lot of people talk about it, and I’ll sell it at Wilco shows. We sell Autumn Defense at the Wilco shows.”
Laurie adds, “It’s going to be a little difficult, but I’m planning on doing some high-profile radio performances, when John’s on tour with Wilco, I’ll fly out to different cities where they are and we’re going to do radio performances and also shows. But we’re going to have to really wait to start touring until probably December.” In the meantime, Laurie has been playing bass in a band with Danny Black of erstwhile Bloodshot Records band the Black Family.
John says, “After the Autumn Defense tours of the winter, what I kind of found out, from touring in bands years ago to now, there’s kind of a club crisis in the country right now. The culture just doesn’t seem [the same]. There’s just so much more entertainment out there right now. I don’t know if touring, especially in secondary markets, if that makes sense anymore. You have to find another way to get the music to people.
“We will definitely tour together. We love the shows we do just as a duo. We’ll do selective dates, just play some of the places where we’re known. It’s just so tough to bring a band, guys you want to see get paid. I don’t know how young bands do it, starting from the ground up.”
Laurie might remind him, “When you’re young, confidence is kind of blind.” Fortunately, when you’re older, you can still start over.