Fighting the Good Fight: An Interview with Slaid Cleaves

Juli Thanki | June 17th, 2013

slaidcleavesSlaid Cleaves admits he’s a late bloomer when it comes to music; he didn’t start writing and recording until he was in his late 20s. But the singer-songwriter has since made up for lost time, releasing some of the best Americana albums of the past decade.  Still Fighting the War, his first studio album in four years, contains some of his strongest writing to date. With a novelist’s eye for detail and a poet’s ear, Cleaves tackles weighty issues like the struggles–mental, physical, and economic–returning soldiers face (“Still Fighting the War”) and tales of working class hardship (“Rust Belt Fields,” written with Rod Picott), which he tempers with occasional moments of levity like “Texas Love Song” and “Whim of Iron.” We got the chance a couple weeks ago to talk with Slaid about his new record, the three producers he chose to work on the album, and his affiliation with Operation Homefront, an organization that assists veterans in need.

Where did you get the inspiration for “Still Fighting the War”?

It was a strange evolution. It started as a song called “The War to End All Wars;” I wrote one verse about a guy who had lost all his money in the stock market, a verse about a soldier coming home and not getting the benefits he was promised, and a verse about a couple breaking up. It had all these clichés and phrases about being swindled, like “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “too big to fail” and “the New Economy.” But it was too unwieldy because I was trying to fit too much into one song.

Finally I realized that the soldier’s story was the most compelling and that was where I should focus the song. I read a lot of news stories about soldiers coming home, and was inspired in particular by a Pulitzer-winning photo essay by Craig Walker for The Denver Post. It was a harrowing series of photos of a Marine who came back from Iraq with severe PTSD. The photographer followed him around for a few months as he tried to get a job, broke up with his girlfriend, and even tried to commit suicide once. I don’t have any close friends or family who are veterans, so I used the internet to research, to find specific and emotional details about what returning veterans were going through.

You’ve written some other songs based on real people and historical events. Is research a big part of your writing process?

Sometimes I’ll come across cool stories and dig into them a little bit, but usually I write more about things my friends are going through or things I see personally. This is the first time I’ve actively tried to find out more about a subject so I could write about it with some authority. I hadn’t had that much personal contact with veterans, which is why I wanted to research, but I’ve had a few soldiers come up to me at shows and express gratitude for songs like “Green Mountains and Me;” it’s so overwhelmingly profound that it reminds me of how powerful music can be.

You’re donating the proceeds of “Still Fighting the War” sales to Operation Homefront. How did you hook up with that organization?   

The whole reason I write songs is to connect with people, and I thought a cool way to do that would be to partner with a veteran’s organization. What I’m doing is offering my song as a download in exchange for a donation to Operation Homefront. I chose them because they’re geared toward helping individual veterans with specific needs, like if someone’s car broke down and they need money to fix it so they can get to work every day, or they need help buying groceries, this organization helps provide assistance; they link donors with veterans who need help.

It’s been a really good experience. The staff is very enthusiastic and they want to help a lot of people; they’ve been really cool about my little project. I’d never done anything like this before, so it’s been a learning process, but it’s turned out to be a really gratifying experience.

Several songs on the album are about people who are downtrodden or disenfranchised. Were you writing songs to fit that theme, or did it emerge naturally?

When I work on a batch of songs, often a theme will start to emerge in the first four or five songs and that will help guide me to write the rest of the album. I consciously didn’t do it that way with this batch; I didn’t worry about fitting things together for an album until I had recorded something like 17 songs. Then I saw that they all had this theme of perseverance and that made sense to me: people are struggling and I’m still struggling in a way.

Are we going to hear any of the songs you recorded but didn’t put on the record?

A few of the songs are going to be exclusive downloads on Amazon and iTunes, but I do plan on putting out a disc of bonus tracks, demos, and alternate versions later on.

“God’s Own Yodeler” is a really sweet tribute to Don Walser. How did you two know each other?

Don was a friend and a mentor of mine down here in Austin; I met him when I first moved to Texas in the 1990s and his yodeling just blew my mind – yodeling itself is difficult, but Don Walser yodeling is incredibly complex and fast. I’d go to his shows in Austin and hang out so I could talk to him after the show. I’d ask him to sing his songs slowly for me so I could understand the yodeling parts.

He was a quintessential West Texas cowboy singer, yodeler, and gentleman. He was just a beautiful person. He passed away a few years ago. I had been kind of a protégé of his when I was first starting out; he saw me as sort of a whippersnapper carrying on his tradition. He was worried about his style of music fading away, so I think it gave him some comfort that someone young was going to carry it on. I just loved the guy so much that I couldn’t help myself; I had to pay tribute to my old friend Don with a song. I recorded it for Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away, but it didn’t feel like it fit on that record. On the current record, I had a song called “Texas Love Song” that goes well with “God’s Own Yodeler;” they’re both Texas-themed.

“Texas Love Song” was a song I started years and years ago but got stuck. I never throw anything away; I just stash it in a junkyard folder. Songs are a bit like crossword puzzles: if you get stuck and put ‘em away and look at them later with fresh eyes, sometimes the solution will come to mind pretty quick. The song sat in a drawer for about seven years. When I took it out last winter, I instantly knew how to fix this broken song. It’s a lighthearted song about how proud Texans are; it’s pretty rare for me to have a fun song on one of my records, but it’s time to branch out a little bit.

How do you write?

I try to have a notebook or iPhone available so that I’m prepared if I get an idea or hear a turn of phrase that I like. Those things happen very rarely, and if you say, “Oh, that’s a good song idea; I’ll work on it next time I sit down to write,” you will never remember that burst of inspiration unless you jot it down. When I get enough of those ideas, I schedule a few days away from the house; I’ll borrow a friend’s cabin to get away from the daily concerns and chores of life. I’ll shut off the phone, turn off the internet, and work. Sometimes I’ll bring a book or a movie along with my laptop and tape recorder and try to connect all those ideas and phrases I jotted down and turn them into songs. I’ll typically have several in-progress songs at any one time. I don’t try to write a song a day like I used to.

This is the first record you’ve done with Lloyd Maines. What was it like working with him in the studio?

It was great. I’ve bumped into Lloyd a few times over the years, and he’s such a gentleman, such a king person, and such an amazing musician. He’s a good guy to know. When it came time to find a producer for the new record, I was torn: I’d made four records with Gurf Morlix, but I thought maybe it was time to move on. You start to run out of ideas and sometimes you need fresh eyes. I wanted to work with Lloyd, I wanted to work with Mark Hallman, who’d done some of my favorite records over the years, and I wanted to work with Scrappy Jud Newcomb. I’ve been a fan of his guitar playing for 20 years, ever since I moved to Austin.

I divided my songs and farmed them out to those three producers based on their strengths as I saw them. The more country-flavored songs went to Lloyd, the ones that were more AAA radio, I gave to Mark, and the rest I gave to Scrappy. They all did brilliantly.

It’s been 23 years since your first record, The Promise. How have you changed as a writer and artist over that time?

When The Promise came out, I was around 26, and kind of a late bloomer. I barely knew what I was doing, and that was the first batch of songs. I’d played in a few garage bands and did a few bar gigs, but I was just starting to learn how to write songs and sing. In hindsight, the album is aptly titled because I think I showed some promise back then, but I certainly didn’t have my act together. Listening to those old recordings, I feel a bit embarrassed about my undeveloped skills. I haven’t heard them in a long time, and I don’t think I want to.

1991-2000 was a period of intense training and apprenticeship here in Austin surrounded by the amazing artists that are all around here. It took a lot of struggling with my craft, but finally people started to pay attention. That struggle of the first few years, the constant defeat and constantly being ignored by the local audiences really spurred me on to work harder on my craft. I credit those early years for making me a better writer and performer.

  1. TX Music Jim
    June 17, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    I am a huge fan of Slaid’s music he is a songwriters, songwriter.

  2. Arlene
    June 17, 2013 at 7:20 pm

    In the interest of completeness, “Rust Belt Fields” is a co-write with his childhood friend, Rod Picott.

    Slaid Cleaves’s “Still Fighting the War” and Patty Griffin’s “I Am Not a Bad Man” are two recent excellent songs by writers with “a novelist’s eye for detail and a poet’s ear” which empathetically capture the struggles faced by returning soldiers. Perhaps coincidentally, both were written by natives of Maine who came late to songwriting. Cleaves, Picott, Griffin… what’s in the water in the pine tree state?

  3. Leeann Ward
    June 17, 2013 at 8:48 pm

    Being a Mainer, I wish I had some of what they were drinkin’.

  4. Leeann Ward
    June 17, 2013 at 8:49 pm

    Old Town, where Griffin is from, is just a few minutes away from me.

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