Monte Warden – Putting the wheels back on the wagon
“With all of my songwriting — from the Wagoneers to yesterday — my heart is firmly painted on my sleeve,” says Monte Warden. “I leave to nothing to irony or conjecture; you know exactly what my songs are about.”
From the song titles on his Asylum debut A Stranger To Me Now — “The Love You Promised Me”, “Another Try”, “I Can’t Tell My Heart What To Do” — it’s readily apparent that Warden has recently traveled a rocky road in his personal life.
“People have been asking what I’ve been up to for the past couple of years, and it’s pretty obvious from the subject matter on the record that I went through a divorce,” he says. “All my other records have had the common thread of how happy-go-lucky they are. Not so with this record. I’ve always written about what I’ve been living and things that have been going on at home. Things were good before, but unfortunately things soured a couple of years ago.”
For the most part, Warden has lived a blessed life. Born in Houston in 1967 and raised in Austin, Warden married his high school sweetheart when he was 18. They have two sons: Van, now 9, who was born with Down’s Syndrome (“I’m just so proud of him and what he’s accomplished,” Warden says), and Sammy, 5.
Warden’s music career also got off to a fast start with the trio Whoa Trigger, which won an Austin Music Award for Best New Band in 1983. Three years later, he helped found the Wagoneers, a retro-country band whose influence is still cited by many of today’s alt-country acts. After recording two albums for A&M, the Wags split in 1990, leaving fans to speculate that they were several years before their time. “That’s certainly a romantic way to look at it, but I was there, and we broke up when we were at our most popular,” Warden says. “You know that old saying, ‘Better two years too soon than five minutes too late,’ so people may have exaggerated our popularity or importance. But hey, I’ll take it any way I can get it!”
Warden went on to cut two fine solo albums for Watermelon Records, his 1993 self-titled debut and 1995’s Here I Am. Both showcased his adept vocals, melodic gifts, and an ability to seamlessly incorporate his influences into a sound that fell somewhere among pop, country, rockabilly and blue-eyed soul. “It was a real sweet time in my life and I was so much in love, I just wrote about it,” he says, “songs like ‘It’s Amazing’, ‘Forever From Now On’ and ‘The Only One’.”
In 1997, however, Warden’s wife told him she wanted a divorce. “It completely and totally took me by surprise,” he says. “To put it succinctly, I thought I was going to be married to her for the rest of my life.”
Emotionally shattered, Warden turned to his songwriting as an outlet. In the process, he wound up with some of his most compelling songs to date. “The ironic part of it is that it was me writing songs from the heart like that that opened up my career like it had never been opened before,” he says. “I don’t know if it means I was writing from a deeper place or just writing better songs, but I’m happy about that aspect of it either way.”
In the divorce’s aftermath, Warden decided to scrap much of the material he had assembled for his next album. He wrote six new songs, including the title track, “The Love You Promised Me” and “Another Try”, and reworked most of the others. Warden co-wrote many of the songs on frequent trips to Nashville, where he hooked up with Bill Lloyd, John Bettis (whose credits range from Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” to the Carpenters’ “Top Of The World”), Mike Noble and Colin Boyd.
“I started every song on this record on my own and hand-picked the collaborators knowing they would have gone through something similar,” Warden says. “This heartbreak stuff was brand-new territory for me, so I wanted to work with someone who had been through it once or twice before.”
Warden also continued to write with Mas Palermo, his former drummer and longtime friend. In fact, the only cover on the album is “Madeline”, which Palermo wrote with Bruce Robison. “Bruce had refused to record that song for as long as I’ve known him and I think it’s one of the best songs he has, so I said, ‘The hell with it, if you ain’t gonna cut it, I’ll cut it,'” Warden says. “I had chided them both over the past couple of years for not having called me when they were writing that song, but it’s one of my favorites on the record.”
Despite the pain of the divorce, A Stranger To Me Now is not all doom and gloom; Warden says he found inspiration from his sons. “The only chamber of my heart that I could find any light was where my kids were, so that’s where I drew from when writing,” he says. “A couple of songs, ‘For You’ and ‘It’s Only Love’, are primarily about the kids. My 9-year-old gets a kick out of the latter, especially for its way-high ‘Magic Bus’ background vocals.”
One song on the new album will be familiar to Warden fans — “Just To Hear Your Voice”, which Warden originally recorded on his Watermelon debut and was also cut by Toni Price on her Swim Away album. “The way I sang it on ‘Austin City Limits’ [in 1993] was 10 times better than on the record,” he says. “And I always dreamed of hearing ‘Voice’ with a big orchestra behind it. I was glad to get the opportunity to redo it with a string quartet.”
Indeed, fans of Warden’s previous releases, which mostly twanged or jangled, may be taken aback by the new album’s more produced sound. For instance, the opening track, “Your Heart Will Come Around”, kicks off with a wailing guitar lick. “The reason why I wanted that song first was that I was making so many new lyrical statements for the first time, I wanted to start out with a musical statement that I hadn’t made it before,” Warden says. Besides the strings, a wide variety of sounds abound, from the slinky dobro runs on “It’s Only Love” to the occasional pedal steel and fiddle lick.
Warden credits producer Joe Thomas, who also produced Brian Wilson’s last solo album, with prodding him toward new sonic territory. “I’ve known him for years; I met him when I played in Chicago,” Warden says. “He lives next door to Brian Wilson [in St. Charles, Ill.]; in fact, we recorded many of the songs in Brian’s basement studio, which is one of the nicest facilities I’ve ever cut in.
“I like the records that Joe has produced, but I thought there was a certain element missing from his records that I could bring, and also elements missing from mine that he could bring. What had been lacking from my records is that little bit of ‘accessibility,’ for lack of a better word. I thought Joe was real good at making things commercial in his production, but I thought the arrangements were lacking something. Arranging is my primary strength in the studio, so Joe just handed over that to me, which made sense since I was writing the songs.
“Having an actual budget to record an album made a big difference as well, in not having to record it in five days or two days like I’ve done before,” Warden continues. “I wanted to stick to a strict two-week schedule in the studio, so there’d still be time constraints that would produce a fire and energy from the need to record quickly. But on the other hand, there was time to do things over, so we didn’t have to say, well, that’s good enough for today.”
Warden originally signed a production contract with Thomas in 1996 with the intention of releasing an album on River North Records, but after his divorce he began looking around for another deal. “I was dissatisfied of their success at radio with some of their other projects, as was Joe, but we thought we’d just record some songs to see where we were,” he says. “In the midst of all that, I got divorced, which also slowed down the recording process.”
In 1998, Warden’s publisher, Warner-Chappell Music, had just started shopping a four-song demo to Nashville labels when he received a call from Evelyn Shriver, a noted Nashville publicist who recently had been named head of Asylum Records. “She had worked with us in the Wagoneers days, so I flew up to Nashville and spoke to her and found that signing with Asylum was something I absolutely wanted to do,” Warden says. “I was speaking to other labels, but there was no deal as good as the one Evelyn put on the table.”
The album was released March 9; Warden plans to tour with a band that includes ex-Wagoneers drummer Tom Lewis plus guitarist Eddie Perez, bassist Brad Fordham and fiddler Amy Farris. Being on a major label means he’ll be the beneficiary of “things like national radio promotion tours, actually having tour support, and making videos for each single,” Warden says. “Plus, I know that the record is going to be in stores. I haven’t had that since the Wagoneers were on A&M. It’s all the things that a major label can bring you, yet I still had the luxury of not having them mess with my sound, as so often is the case with heavy-handed A&R folks, because Evelyn had faith in me.
“It’s a legitimate, honest shot for me, and that’s all I’ve been looking for.”