Jeff Talmadge: An Eye for Detail
There has always been a fine tradition of the Texas troubadour singer/songwriter who writes songs from the heart and creates vivid, interesting characters and stories. Jeff Talmadge is doing a fine job of carrying on the tradition, joining the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker and Townes Van Zandt. His journey has taken a slightly different route than most, however. Before turning to music full-time, Talmadge was, among other things, a seminary student, press secretary, poet, assistant baseball scout and the proprietor of a success law practice in Austin.
“It was obviously not a decision that had any financial basis,” Talmadge says of the decision to trade in his law career for a full-time music career. “I had made a record in 1999 that I really enjoyed making, and the response was very good. I decided I wanted to keep doing that for a while.”
The creative arts were always a big part of Talmadge’s life. He was an English major in college and completed a Masters of Fine Arts degree in writing after getting his law degree. Over the last 12 years, he’s released a string of critically acclaimed albums that have gained him a following both in the U.S. and Europe. His most recent release, Kind of Everything, came out earlier this year to favorable reviews.
Talmadge notes that his previous career isn’t as dissimilar to his current career as you might think. “I think part of what interested me about practicing law was the stories that I would hear,” he explains. “When people came into my office, there was always a story.” Now, in creating his own stories, Talmadge writes about everything from the homeless in “It’ll Sure Be Cold Tonight” to a brief encounter with a street musician in “Hamburg Violin” to the feelings of a new love in “One Spectacular Moon.” Regardless of the topic, the songs share a common thread. They are filled with enough descriptive details and the feelings that the songs come to life.
Take the case of “One Spectacular Moon.” Everyone has felt that euphoria that follows a first kiss and the hint of new love. While that giddiness may be hard to explain, Talmadge manages to do just that. “People respond to ‘One Spectacular Moon’ so nicely, because to me it manages to be a sweet song without being maudlin,” he says. The song, ironically, was written under less-than-sweet circumstances: Talmadge and Jaime Michaels had a gig cancel at the last minute, so they write it in Talmadge’s kitchen in an attempt to get something productive done that evening.
To help set the scene, Talmadge fills his songs with little details, whether it be the sound of buttons hitting a hardwood floor or the rain against a window. They may seem insignificant, but they help pull the listener into the song. “For me, it’s the small details in almost any story that really brings it to life, as readers or as listeners,” he says. “It is the smell or the sight or the sound – the way the light looks – it’s those kinds of things that makes me respond to a particular thing. I go for that when I’m trying to tell a story.”
“Hamburg Violin,” featuring Fats Kaplin on the violin, came about from a short but significant experience while walking with a friend through downtown Hamburg, Germany, by the River Elbe. Talmadge says a violinist was playing on the sidewalk, and while most people passed by without notice, the music was so beautiful that even the other street musicians stopped what they were doing to listen. “One of our friends was going through some pretty difficult stuff at the time,” he explains. “It was this beautiful day contrasted with the questions of mortality that our friend was facing at the time. In the middle of all that, this beautiful violin music was playing as we walked down the street. [The song] was really trying to capture that moment.”
Kind of Everything was recorded partly in Austin and Nashville. Along with Kaplin, notable musicians like Lloyd Maines, Tim O’Brien, Jon Vezner and Ray Bonneville lend their talents to the record. In a tribute to modern technology, some of the tracks were started by Talmadge and Ed Pettersen in Nashville. When Pettersen was called away to Norway for work, Thomm Jutz stepped in to produce the album. From there, the songs were completed by the musicians working both in Nashville and Austin and assembled by Jutz. Talmadge says that he had wanted to work with Jutz for a long time, based on his work with other songwriters like Dave Olney and Mary Gauthier. “He understands how to play with songwriters, where the song is the important thing,” he says. While Pettersen wasn’t able to stay for the whole record, he did co-write several songs, including “Molly,” one of the highlights. Talmadge is quick to credit his co-writer on giving the song its bluegrass-y feel, as well as getting Tim O’Brien to play mandolin and sing background vocals.“I already had a song that was pretty close to written, but I wasn’t very happy with how it was working,” he explains. “I got together with Ed, and we really worked the song over and gave it the vibe that you hear now.”
Though Talmadge now lives in suburban Atlanta, he still gets back to his native Texas to play several times a year. Thanks to a record deal in the Netherlands, he also tours overseas, where he’s usually categorized alternately as country or Americana. “If nothing else, they know me as a Texas singer/songwriter. To them, it will mean something, because they’re typically fans of Townes Van Zandt or Guy Clark,” he says. Even in a country like The Netherlands or Germany, where English is at best a second language to most of its people, it should come as no surprise that Talmadge’s lyric-driven music has gained a loyal following. Regardless of his profession, Talmadge has always found a way to keep the lines of communication open.
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