Nate: Hello, and welcome back to The Power of Song Podcast. This is episode three, and my guest today is Joe Crookston. Do I need to say that again? This is episode three, and my guest today is Joe Crookston. That’s better. If you’re at all familiar with today’s hottest folk music, you know him well. Joe is a songwriting powerhouse with a massive resume. Besides his album output, which in and of itself is an impressive collection, he has done extensive work with incarcerated youth, he has created a significant body of visual art as well, including paintings and animations from paintings. He once received a grant to travel around New York state to collect and document personal histories, many of which became the basis for the songs on his album, “Able Baker Charlie & Dog.” One of those songs, “Blue Tattoo,” has since become the subject of a documentary called, “Blue Tattoo: Dina’s story, Joe’s Song.”
Let’s see what else. He leads annual tours of Ireland focusing on the local history and traditional music. These seem to be selling out every year far in advance. All that, and he still finds time to play more shows in a year than I ever have by a lot, and that’s saying something. Let’s see. I must have left something out here. Oh, yeah, he’s the 2016 Folk Alliance artist-in-residence. The list goes on and on and on. Okay. Well, I think I’ve already exceeded my quota for superlatives, and this is a longer episode. So, I’m gonna stop yapping and get to the good stuff. Here is episode three of The Power of Song, with Joe Crookston. Enjoy.
Nate: So Joe, thank you so much. I’m really, really excited for this conversation.
Joe: I am too, Nate. I’ve been looking forward to this, and so glad to be part of it.
Nate: Nice, nice. So we could go anywhere. You know, I’ve been listening to music all morning. We’ve worked together on several projects. You’ve had me join into your band a couple of times. And I was even on your website for a second as like a possible add-on to your show. You never got any invites on that one. But let’s see. Where do we start? I’m more interested in really hitting the things that I think we can do uniquely. As friends, we’ve helped each other through some time and we’ve known each other well enough for a long time. So I’m kind of hoping we can really kind of start on the deep-end a little bit. So, why don’t you tell me a little bit about the song, “The Nazarene.” And in the spirit of a good opening, I think that that’s one of my favorite opening lines of all time. And the power of an opening, the first line of that song, “Dad coaches baseball. I’m on the team. Mum thinks she’s Jesus Christ of Nazarene.”
Dad coaches baseball
And I am on the team
Mum thinks she’s Jesus Christ, The Nazarene
We go to visit her on Tuesday
Go riding in the car
Down the hall into the room,
Where the other prophets are.
Oh, the rosary, she says
Did you see it turn to gold?
And I shake my head and answer
Yes, it was a miracle
And is it true, and is it true
Did it turn to gold in front of you?
And are you lost in hell?
Is it a heavenly sign?
Because I know you’d say
That everything is divine
Nate: How do you go wrong from there? You set yourself up. That’s such a deep song, and it’s always been one of my favorite of yours. Tell me a little bit about that song.
Joe: One thing I’d say about it is it would be, maybe, the most deeply, deeply personal song that I’ve ever written, maybe not for my own personal emotional place, but from my family history, and from my sort of the bigger picture of my life, the history of that, and deeply personal. And I would say that there was a sense that I knew that I someday would write a song that touched on my mother’s sort of mental instability and mental illness. And that, I knew that it would just be a personal journal that I would write and it would never be heard, I would never perform it. It would be my own version.
Nate: But then it was too good of a song to keep private.
Joe: And it was just that thing where I really went into it, that opening line, “Dad coaches baseball, and I am on the team, and mum thinks she’s Jesus Christ, The Nazarene.” Like how can I say that and then finish a song and then perform that? But I think what I found was that the song tumbled out so honestly. And it came out, the way I think about it is just it’s such an emotional song, The Nazarene. But really, what makes it emotional is that the architecture of the facts, of the imagery, and the nouns in the song, St. Francis and the Bluebird Jubilee, and the front yard, and the shuffling down the hallway at the hospital, and driving in the car, like there are so many nouns and facts that that is the architecture in which holds this emotional
Nate: It’s a bunch of snapshots.
Joe: That’s right. And then, I don’t have to tell you the emotion of what’s happening because you feel it. And that to me is, we could talk about it more later, but I think that’s really a big part of what I feel is great songwriting, is creating some great architecture for the emotion to be in that, and not necessarily tell the emotion but allow it. And I wrote that song, “Nazarene,” and I don’t play it that often in shows, but I certainly do. And when I do, I believe it, and I sing it. And something that I would say is, I’ve known you Nate for eight, nine years now. And we’ve seen each other through some rough time.
Nate: We have.
Joe: The song in “Nazarene,” I would say, for me, I wrote it about my mum. I wrote it about my family history. And then, maybe four years later, I realized, “Oh, I’m in this story too. There’s a part of me that I’m a product of that family history and that I relate to that song.”
Nate: How did you not see that at first? Were you in denial about it, or were you just unaware?
Joe: That’s a good question. I think denial about it. The way I would put it is that, I don’t really wanna use that, I’ll say speak for myself, but as humans, I think we have a veil between what our conscious minds know and can see, and then there’s a veil, a thin veil, between what then our unconscious and subconscious minds know. And every once in a while, there’s a pin prick or a hole that gets popped in that veil and some of the information of our unconscious, subconscious mind, comes and it passes through to our conscious mind. And what I would say is that, at the time of writing “The Nazarene,” that information was in my unconscious mind.
Nate: And again, you were just presenting the facts.
Joe: I was presenting the facts.
Nate: You weren’t creating a narrative, necessarily. You were just like, here’s a picture of the time that I’m telling about.
Joe: That’s right. That’s right. Without, maybe, a total deep understanding of my own role or my emotion within that or my experience with the same issue. So I would say that that would be true. And maybe there was a time in my life when not just a pin prick allowed some information to come from my unconscious mind into my conscious mind, but maybe, there was a big hole raptured and a massive amounts of information came up into my conscious mind. And that took the form of something that you, who are part of as a great friend, and I would say that was kind of a life changing moment for me, because the rush of information and new knowledge could have been danger, so it could have been overwhelming, and it was. But I think I’ve learned to integrate that in an awesome way in my life. And I’m really proud of that and I’m really…I’ve learned so much from it.
Nate: Way to go. Way to go.
Joe: But that pin prick, that little information through, or like a real rupture could let a lot through. And what I would say now, tying it back to The Nazarene is that, it’s kind of like, “Oh, I see, when those veils between the worlds, yeah, the worlds are either between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind kind of break and information is coming through, it can be overwhelming.” And then that could take the form of mental illness. It could take the form of a bipolar sort of…
Nate: Well, it seems like a lot of the time, that is actually the solution to a lot of the times, when people are suffering. I mean, it’s become slightly trendy, Ayahuasca ceremony and stuff. And I think that I wouldn’t just go say, “All you need to do is take this drug and have a trip.” I wouldn’t speak of it that way. But a lot of the times, people need to have their minds blown. They’ve kind of sealed that off, and it’s like everything exits in this mundane plane and they need to see that they’re actually a part of this global consciousness. And sometimes it takes a traumatic event or a drug trip, or whatever it is, some kind of epiphany.
Joe: Epiphany, yeah.
Nate: And I actually would say that a lot of the times, I think, songs and this is why I call this podcast The Power of Song, a song can, I think, provide that transport, that opening. I think your song, as much as anyone else, do that. I lost my mom in ’92. I was 21 or so. And I didn’t process that right away. I’ve had some epiphanies over the years where I realized how I was the one that kind of like stood up straight and offered comfort to my family members when they fell apart around it. And then I found that later on, I was kind of like, “What do I do about this?” And I didn’t go crying to them. But I’ve had a few moments listening in particular to that song, “Caitlin at the Window.”
I sailed you home
Across the sea
Out the hall
We buried you down
In the Autumn chill
Killing time, here at home
Mama lost sleeps
In the churchyard on the hill
Here at home
While my love
Sleeps in the churchyard on the hill
Nate: Another one that I think, really, just…And I’m not saying that the only reason that they resonate with me is because of my experience with my mom. It’s a whole lifetime of experience that I bring to…as a listener. The power of song to heal and to connect an individual with a greater experience and as a song writer, you’re offering these landscapes, these images, these narratives, that point to our interconnectedness in a beautiful way.
Joe: Yeah, I like what you’re saying. There’re a couple of things that made me think about when you’re saying that about your family and when your mom died and how you were strong. It’s almost like your job, or what you took on at the time was to strengthen that barrier between your conscious and unconscious mind because you needed to be strong and stable and you needed to hold up. And you wouldn’t allow those family histories to bubble up too much because it was just too much. That was one thing. And then I also thought like what you just said about songs. I use the image of like a needle poking that membrane between the conscious and unconscious mind. And possibly a song can be that quick pin prick that allows unconscious information to become conscious to a person while they’re listening to a song.
And I would say even, referring back to The Nazarene, people come up to me after a concert, or they, maybe, send me an email or something, and they say, “That song, “The Nazarene,” I had the same issue in my family. I’ve never spoken this to anybody.” And they stand there by the stage at the end and they’ve got a tear coming down. And they’re saying, “I experienced something very similar to this and thank you for putting it into words and kind of in a way that I will now go home and allow this to kind of work with me.” I’m just putting it together as we’re talking, almost. That, at its best, maybe a song could be that little pin hole between the conscious and the unconscious mind that allows us to heal, because I think there’s a lot of healing that happens when the unconscious becomes conscious.
Nate: I wanna call it an epiphany, I guess, it feels like that.
Joe: I do too. I like that word a lot.
Nate: Well, let’s see, okay. So, epiphanies. This is in a way related because there’s a moment in several of your songs, and I love the way you set these up. We’ve talked about this in the past just off the record, but you do this thing with the reveal. A lot of movie, screenwriters will do that. It can be used in a comedic way like “Three’s Company,” television show that you did on that, where you set up the listener, you’re taking them on this path but they don’t know what the song is about. And then on the third or fourth verse or like after the bridge and then the chorus comes again, and then it’s the very last verse where you’re like, “This is a song about 911, and this is a song about the little boy.” There’s a several of my…I have a very small printed list of things I wanted…
Joe: I just wrote a song last week that does exactly what you’re saying. And I feel like I’m real excited about that. Maybe, I don’t think there’s something about it that’s, thinking about it like, “How am I gonna do the reveal?” I think what it is, as we’re talking about this, using very, very specific imagery and details to then grow the song into a universal global concept. So, could I sing a little bit of something?
Nate: Sure, please.
Joe: Okay, this will be an example of a week ago, it starts out:
Children on the playground
Climbing up the trees
Up and down the dirt pile
And skinning up their knees
It’s running from a shark attack
And chasing rubber balls
Children lose their balance
Then they fall
Joe: Simple little opening, right? And then:
Lovers get together
And they start out big and true
Late nights in the parking lot
Get it on like lovers do
And the words they turn bitter
And love, it hits the wall
Lovers lose their balance
Then they fall
Joe: The next one:
Big boys in the boardroom
Suiting up in ties
And chasing all the money down
And bringing home the price
Feeling up the empty
Chase it down with alcohol
Big boys lose their balance
Then they fall
Joe: and, last one:
Now the gates of the empire
All rickety with rust
As we’re blinded by the glitters
We crumble into dust
And we follow down the leaders
And we sleepwalk through it all
Empires lose their balance
Then they fall
So for me, it’s the to grow from the minutia and the micro view…
Nate: The first one was the children in the playground.
Joe: Yes, in the playground, and shark attack. And it’s like, “Well, that’s the micro version.” And then it grows into the macro global universal. And I think, maybe, in some ways, that’s how my mind works, is sort of like, “What’s the micro story, but what is the, ultimately, what’s the global story that I’m trying to convey.” And then it naturally happens. It’s like, “Oh my God, the reveal happened. And I didn’t have to really try for it.”
Nate: Right. That one, that one is, actually, I think, slightly distinct. I mean, in that one, you’re taking a seed and letting it grow, or taking a certain concept and looking at it through different lenses or at different stages. So I mentioned too before, “Able Baker Charlie & Dog” and “Tuesday Morning.” But now, I’m thinking of, “The Black Dress.”
The woman alone in the black dress
At the table in the corner with the tall glass
Sipping on her wine
Man, she’s looking fine
I’m across the room
I’m in love with the woman
With the ring on her hand
I’m in love with the woman
With the ring on her hand
Would you look at those eyes of amber?
And gazing all around the room
I’m walking over her way
Like a lover any day
If she can melt my heart
I’m in love with a woman
With the ring on her hand
I’m in love with the woman
With the ring on her hand
Joe: Oh, yes.
Nate: Where it’s distinctly written as a, “I’m at a bar and I see a woman, and she’s got a ring on her hand. And I shouldn’t, but I do. I sit down and I stare.” It’s clear that you’re setting it up to be that the listener will assume, she’s a married woman and you’re attracted to her but the reveal at the end…
And I said to her across the table
“I’ve been thinking about you and me
And the hard times that we’ve been through
I’m still glad that I married you
It was the best thing I ever did
Giving you that wedding band.”
I’m in love with a woman
With the ring on her hand
I’m in love with the woman
With the ring on her hand
Joe: Oh, it’s his wife.
Nate: That’s the kind of reveal I mean where it’s almost like specifically…Anyway, I really think that that, and in cinema as well, I think that that kind of a reveal, it’s almost like a deceptive cadence in music where you’re really expecting one thing, but then when you get the other, it does create this emotional surprise moment. And you’re kind of jarred, and maybe that adds to that epiphany, what I was saying before.
Joe: I love what you’re saying so much. And I have a few things to say about it. That is an example of, while I’m writing the song, I am totally aware that I am gonna make sure that every line that I write gives the impression that this is a cheating song, that this is sort of a temptation, attempting feud…
Nate: The drink. Looks like alcohol involved.
Joe: Right. And it’s kind of like it’s giving the impression that this is an affair waiting to happen. But then, you can flip it and it still could work if it’s his wife.
Nate: Right, once the reveal happens, it makes sense in a different way.
Joe: Makes sense in its own way.
Nate: Yeah, like the “Coral and Clay,” from “Able Baker Charlie & Dog.”
Joe: Yeah, I like doing that. And maybe there’s A something about, it brings up something for me as we’re talking about this which is, if you asked many people, “What kind of music does Joe Crookston play? What am I as a songwriter?” They’re gonna say, “He’s a folk musician.” And I think that’s true. I mean, I’m folk musician in so much that I play acoustic instruments and I write songs and I tell stories. But I also feel like there’s a certain sincerity and maybe a large part of folk music that I don’t resonate with, that really bores me, that really makes me feel like it’s overly overt and preachy, and all of these things. And I feel like, you could on the surface go, “Yeah, Joe is a folk musician,” but if you dig into it, or come to a show, for me, I am always like, I study comedians, and how you set someone up to think one thing and then instantly, you cut them off at the knees and it’s, “Oh, that’s what you… like, you got me.”
And I think for me, not just lyrically speaking, but I think as a show, I’m gonna pull out my fiddle and I’m gonna plug it through my octive shifter and my looper, and I’m gonna do some…They’re like, “I was not expecting that.” And I’m like, I want people to constantly be like, “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh. Like, he’s waking me up. And he’s not doing the typical thing.” So without trying…
Nate: You should come on tour with me and Bill sometimes.
Joe: Without trying too hard, while still being authentic. But it’s almost like keeping…Yeah, I would love to come on tour with you.
Nate: We get that every single show. At least half of the people that we speak with after the show, “That was not what I expected.”
Joe: Yeah, that was not what I expected.
Nate: It’s really fun, actually, to get that kind of feedback.
Joe: The Tour was so great at the Hangar Theater and watching you and Bill in action. What I resonated so deeply within what I do resonate so much with is being willing to be at your edge of creativity in front of a group of people and not judging yourselves for mistakes. It’s not about that. It’s about the human soul desiring to be free. And it’s like the human soul desiring deeply to express its imagination. And I believe that that is like Nirvana. It’s heaven. It’s the ability for the soul to truly express and to make mistakes while it does it and then do it imperfectly. But to do that in front of each other, and then on stage, doesn’t even have to be, just you and I right here, for me to express my heart in front of you and have you go, “Yes, or, how do you think about that?” Is I think a great human desire in our hearts and souls to do that. And I think what you do with Bill at those shows is you represent the willingness to be at the edge of where your expression and creativity is regardless of the outcome, and knowing that that is awake, with a big capital A, and that is to be commended.
Nate: Right on.
Joe: I resonate with that really deeply.
Nate: Well, cool. You show it. I mean, I can see that your passion when you’re on stage is something that I think gets you out of the…Well, I shouldn’t say that. I mean, folk, we could dis on folk forever, but yeah, I think it’s obvious that you’re trying to think outside the box as well. You’re thinking outside the box as well.
Nate: How about those Indians…
Joe: Oh, the Cleveland Indians. I know.
Nate: I wanted to talk baseball for a minute.
Joe: No, we got a time. Here’s what I would say is, I have watched 140 games this year. I grew up in Cleveland. I’m a painter. So at night, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday nights, I’m at home in my little studio. I’m painting, and I’m watching the Cleveland Indians. It’s a time for me to just turn off in a way and be in my own space. But I love watching human beings reaching to this mastery level. And I grew up in Cleveland, so I love the team and I’ve been hoping for them. And I just feel like there’s a lot of parallels between the discipline and self-motivation to excel and to kind of say, I wanna grow myself to the ability to be able to do this remarkable thing. And watching players move so perfectly and so in sync is so inspiring to me. And then with that said, I hope they win the World Series.
Nate: They’ve got to win two now, right?
Joe: Yeah, they’ve got to win two now. And then I hope they change their logo and their name. I think that it’s time for all that. There’s a whole downside of the sort of racist mascot thing. And people ask me what I think about that. And I think there’s not like the Philadelphia Blacks or the…
Nate: The Redskins. They’ve got the…
Joe: Caucasians. So I think it’s overdue and it’s time for a change, and I believe that doesn’t change my love of the team. But in our time right now, it’s long overdue.
Nate: Yeah, it’s just a label, really.
Joe: Yeah, it’s just a label. That’s right.
Nate: To follow up on that, politics, and the role of the songwriter. Obviously, we have a great tradition of songwriters and it goes way back. I was actually talking with Travis Knapp, who I hope to have on this podcast soon, earlier today about how the role of the court jester, the court musician, the traveling bard, it’s depicted in comedy with Monty Python’s. Brave Sir Robin, travelling minster.
Joe: Yeah, that cayote who’s the court jester. Reflecting back to the culture, who they are or aren’t.
Nate: Yes, exactly. And I would point out that a lot of the times, the role of the Court Jester, or the court musician or the grio or the jolly in west African culture, is very important because the ministers of the king, or the president, or whatever it is, the cabinet, they can’t necessarily get away with saying the hard truth to the leader. And I’m generalizing a lot here. But, the role of the comedian, or the musician, or the folk poet, they are, I would say, especially, in terms of the Jester and the comedian, is they say things in jest that when you laugh at it, it’s like you’re kind of admitting it and laughing at how ridiculous it is and you can’t necessarily…it’s not like proof that when you laugh at a joke…Do you know what I’m saying?
Joe: I do. I do. In a way, the comedian, or the musician, or the Jester, has permission to point out the truth.
Nate: The truth, the hard truth.
Joe: And then maybe do it in a way that’s accessible so people might laugh at something they otherwise would be defensive about and dig their heels in, but now they’re laughing at. So in a way…
Nate: The Roast.
Joe: Yes. Right.
Nate: That’s alive and well today. I mean, they still have those presidential dinners, and you see clips of them. And they don’t hold back at all. The guys in there, taking heat and all their dates looking at them and their wives or something.
Joe: Yeah, it’s kind of like, “Oh, this is the moment of true honesty,” under the guise of being funny and comedic.
Nate: So anyway, what do you think? I mean, I don’t really hear you writing…you definitely don’t go straight political, as early Dylan did.
Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
Nate: Do you see yourself ever kind of dabbling in that zone? Have you ever…? I mean, I could probably think of a song or two of yours that…
Joe: Yeah. I can think of a few songs earlier in my writing that were kind of preachy, kind of…
Nate: That I can tell is something about “folk music,” that you dislike. The preachiness of it.
Joe: Yeah. Some people might disagree with me. I think it’s…For me, let’s see, it’s such a great conversation and a big topic. And I would just say that, me, standing on stage and writing songs that are preaching what you should think and believe is not effective art. I do not think it’s effective art. I don’t think it moves people towards what the…I think it might affirm something that someone already believes.
Nate: Masters of war, though, that’s pretty cutting. I mean, Donald Ramsell must have sweat some bullets over that one, or whatever, whoever, back when that song first came out.
Joe: And maybe that’s it. Maybe Dylan is like the master of writing a finger pointing song in a way, “Who killed Davey Moore, why, and what’s the reason, for not I say the referee…”
“Not I,” says the referee
“Don’t point your finger at me
I could’ve stopped it in the eighth
An’ maybe kept him from his fate
But the crowd would’ve booed, I’m sure
At not gettin’ their money’s worth
It’s too bad he had to go
But there was a pressure on me too, you know
It wasn’t me that made him fall
You can’t blame me at all”
Who killed Davey Moore?
Joe: Everyone washes their hands of responsibility. That to me isn’t a political…that is, when I think…
Nate: There’s an art to that.
Joe: Maybe, when I think of the phrase, political song, it means, that I’m gonna write a song that’s gonna convince you to vote for Bernie Sanders instead of Hilary Clinton, or something like that. And that to me is…But I would say like, “Who Killed Davy Moore” by Dylan and “Masters of War,” are great examples of political commentary done in extremely artful ways, that I would say, “Who Killed David Moore” is one of the benchmarks for me in terms of using vignettes in verses that all kind of…in the sense, I could even go back…
Nate: Like the song about losing your balance.
Joe: Loosing you balance. I could go back to “Who Killed David Moore,” because it really, he just says, the referee washes his hands. The crowd all says, “We just came here to watch a boxing match.” Everyone washes their responsibility and now no one’s left. So, now, no one’s taking responsibility. He’s pointed the finger, but you can’t deny it. It’s like he did it in such a masterful way. So for me, that is a…That doesn’t even feel political as much as it feels human and real, like you’re boxed into a corner. There’re no sides there.
Nate: Did you go to Kent State.
Joe: I did, yeah.
Nate: So what about Ohio, the Niel Young song?
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.
Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?
Joe: I think it was a really, I mean, a really quick guttural response four or five days after May 4th, after the shooting, that Neil Young, you know, He has this guttural responses, and they’re not overly crafted, I think. And that’s some of the absolutely just amazingness of his…I wish I could tap into more of that in my music. So I wanna be really like, I’m not talking like Neil Young didn’t do it. What I guess my response more is maybe, could be the most true thing I could say is, I, Joe Crookston, when I filter art and songs through me and my experiences, they don’t feel authentic or powerful when I’m coming at it from a political preachy place. It just doesn’t resonate, and I don’t think that that’s where my power is. So, I think that I’m really careful. But careful isn’t the right word. I’m actually more…It’s not avoidance of that. It’s a going towards the Venn diagrams, so for me…
Nate: You’re casting your net wider, right?
Joe: Yes. I’m casting it almost the opposite. I’m casting it so…Okay, you take a Venn diagram. You take 10 circles, and you draw. You have Democrat and Republican and you have Buddhists and Christian, and you have all these circles. And there’s a little space, tiny little place, where all of those circles overlap. And what I’m doing is I’m pulling my bow and arrow back and I’m just, trying to hit it right in the center of that odd little shape which is connecting all of us. And it’s not like, “Let’s hold hands and get together.” It’s just a true attempt to what is the place that…
Joe: …universal, that is undeniably human. That to me…Dylan had his power, “Masters of War,” and “Who Killed David Moore,” and that kind of thing.
Nate: That’s just one side of Dylan, too.
Joe: Yeah, right. But I’m just saying that maybe that Venn diagram and that little shape in the middle that I’m shooting towards, to me, feels like that’s where my power is and I’m exploring how deeply I can go into that power.
Nate: Next album cover? What shape is that? What does it look like? Just put that on the front.
Joe: Yeah, right. It’s like a little…
Nate: People will be like, “What’s this thing?”
Joe: It’s like a football, but it’s kind of a weird football shape. But you get what I’m saying?
Nate: I totally do. It would be a many pointed star, I think, wouldn’t it after all?
Joe: Maybe. I’m gonna have to…I need to draw it out and just see what that shape is.
Nate: That’s my secret.
Joe: Born right here.
Nate: What does the word sentimental mean to you? When I wanna tell people about your music, one of the things that I love about it is how it makes me feel which sounds like that’s what you’re hoping for, partially, anyway. But I always feel like sentimental is a bad word. But it just makes me feel so…my emotions just get bubbled up. And like I said at the beginning, I’d love nothing more than when that, especially on the Dark Bird in the Blue…
Joe: Darkling in the Blue.
Nate: Darkling and the Bluebird Jubilee, there’s a few songs on there that just every time that certain part of the song comes around, it just kind of wrenches up and my gut just get…I don’t know. What does the word sentimental mean to you? Is it a bad word or not?
Joe: Well, it is, and it isn’t. I would say that it is, for me, artistically, if my music is being soft and being lazy and maybe rosy. that’s what I would say.
Nate: I see.
Joe: But if it means I’m on an Amtrak train, and I’m riding west, and I’m in a chair, and a 89-year-old woman sits down next to me, and she starts showing me photographs of her dead husband, and we start having this conversation about life and about where we’re going…
Pulling in to Stanley Station
And on the wooden platform waiting
With their silver hair and cane and a crooked smile
She come shuffling down the aisle
And asking if my empty seat is free
Sits down in says her name is Rosemarie
49 years with the man I love, she says
And I lost him last May
I need some time to get away
In the middle of nowhere.
Joe: On the surface, yes, I am sitting down next to an 89-year-old woman having this beautiful conversation and then she walks off and then I continue on the Amtrak train heading west by myself looking out the window. And you could call that sentimental, but to me, it’s like, all of this life and death and grit and sadness and loss and loneliness, is all in that song. So for me, the edge of sentimental is when it’s rosy and sweet and kind of like, that’s sentimental. To me, reflecting back on a very beautiful moment that had a lot of grit in it, is not sentimental. So for me…
Nate: Poignant might be a better word.
Joe: Maybe poignant. Yeah. So I would say, sentimental. I would never use that to describe my music and songwriting at all. But I could see why someone would, looking over the ledge and saying, “Oh, yeah, Joe, he seems sentimental” but if you don’t know it. That would be kind of like saying, let us be lovers, very high fortunes together.
Let us be lovers,
We’ll marry our fortunes together.
I’ve got some real estate
Here in my bag.
So we bought a pack of cigarettes,
And Mrs. Wagner’s pies,
And walked off
To look for America.
Joe: Right. And you could just hear that sound and that melody and say, “That’s sentimental.” And I’m like, “It’s not sentimental.”
Nate: I think of the song, “Reminiscing.” I don’t know if that’s the little river band or one of those ’70s band but yeah.
Joe: I don’t know the song. I know The Little River Band.
Memories come along,
All the times we’re missing…
Joe: Are you saying that song, it is sentimental.
Nate: Yeah, I think so. That’s what I think of. But I also feel like, I wanna kind of revive that word or somehow give that word back some value, because it does get used as a derogatory pejoratively, and I think…I just wanted to express that there’s value in the tears. There’s value in letting yourself feel a way that you might be uncomfortable feeling. A lot of men, especially, are taught to never cry. Don’t show weakness. I guess, I’m just kind of shining a light on that and encouraging dudes, it’s okay to get into that zone and appreciate music that’s not about how tough you are.
Joe: Someone who I’ve listened to a lot over the last years is Bon Iver, Justin Vernon from Bon Iver.
Is the company stalling?
We had what we wanted: your eyes
(When we leave this room it’s gone)
With no word from the former
I’d be happy as hell, if you stayed for tea
Joe: And his music is completely shattered and different and arranged and sampled and auto-tuned. And it’s this collage of sound. But listening to him talk and just listening to interviews with him and as a human being, he’s one of the most empathetic, deep feeling kind of people. Hear him talk, it’s like, he’s saying exactly what I’m saying in a way. He’s saying some of the deeper but yet…There’s this point…This is what I would say, is that, I have a lot of empathy where I sense a lot of what’s going on in the world. And what I’m learning how to do is separate myself from that so I can just make the kind of art that is absolutely true for me and not be empathetic to the point where I’m trying to give my art to people in a certain way. Do you get what I’m trying to say?
Nate: I think I do.
Joe: If I feel my audience so deeply want something, or they’re, “That’s gonna work,” I’m really torn by that. Someone like Bon Iver, I bring him up because he’s just like, “I’m gonna do exactly what I wanna do. And if you love it, then you love it. And if you hate it, then you hate it.”
Nate: That’s a good business model.
Joe: I’m working really hard on that, because there’s an empathy issue there where it’s just like, let’s say we’re doing an interview. I’m talking to you, Nate, and we’re having this awesome conversation. And I really have a deep feeling of talking about something that’s true for me, but I have a sense from you that…
Nate: I wanna go somewhere else whether…
Joe: That your podcast would do better if we went into this direction. In the past, and my tendency would be to want to…
Nate: To help the other person.
Joe: Help you do well. And now, I’m like, “I don’t care about your podcast. I’m going to talk about what I want to talk about.” You get what I’m saying?
Nate: I do, I do.
Joe: So what is the balance there?
Nate: That’s evidenced perfectly because last week we were on the road. And Numara who’s our lighting tech put on Bon Iver. And we didn’t know what it was for a while. We were listening 10 of us and it’s 10:00 at night and everyone’s got a drink in their hand or whatever, and we’re done with our show, and we’re just traveling to the next city. And we have a faction of Dead Heads in our crew. And we have a whole range of people. There’s like 12 of us or so on the road. And we always are throwing different stuff on the stereo. And that music, I and Mike was sitting right next to me. And we were kind of grooving on it, like, “Wow, this is so cool. It’s so different. It keeps changing.” It had this really intriguing kind of vibe to it. And I think it might have been a live album. But yeah, after 10 minutes or 15 minutes, the crew from the front was like, “Can we put on something like normal?”
Joe: “Something normal that we understand.” See, I’m so deep into his music that I just follow every one of those changes, and it’s sort of normal to me, and not that my music sounds anything like that. I would be so unauthentic if I tried to do that. But I’m inspired by that…I think I said it pretty well of like, where’s the empathy line and how is it there but not crossed. And I’m really searching for that. And I feel like that’s my work to do in the next few years, really.
Nate: Just in terms of audience, I imagine that every show you ever play, people are all sitting there, wrapped. But have you ever felt like challenged by a disengaged audience and if so, how do you proceed in those situations?
Joe: Like disengaged like I’m perceiving them to be sort of not into it?
Nate: Yeah, like a couple of people in the second row are yawning. I don’t know. They’re just not getting the message. They don’t know who you are, maybe. I know you do some festivals and stuff, but I just picture your audiences to be really dialed in and just there because you’re there, or at least there because they love folk music, or whatever it is.
Joe: No, that is true. I would say that typical concert, 125, 130, 150 people in a room around the stage, and I’m up there alone with my instruments and they’re just there with everything I do and say, and every sound, and I love that. To me, it’s almost somewhere between like a concert. I mean, it’s definitely fun. I think sometimes it’s just really big energy and it’s whooping, and other times it’s very low, like slow and melodic and different things. But I do think that they’re there to go on a journey with me. I would imagine, they’re kind of like, like if a podcast. You put in a podcast and you’re driving in your car, and you’re kind of like, “Okay, I’m gonna open myself up to this hour and let’s see where we go. What does it mean to me and how do I…? Oh, they laughed.” Now they’re…
Nate: You’re raising your arms up and down and I’m thinking of the word contour. And I’m always talking, during our shows, I’m always like, “Guys, we need contour. We can’t just do…” And it’s not like I don’t wanna just change the tempo up. And this was something I remember in high school, Battle of the Bands. Originality, dynamics, that’s always something you get judged on. And like in school musicality, dynamics is a big thing. It kind of goes back to setting up expectations and then breaking them, which we were talking about a little bit a minute ago. So I guess that answers my question.
Joe: And couple other things I’d say about that is that, I just had this image of, I played a show up in Brainerd, Minnesota once. So you think about Northern Minnesota folks are very self-contained and outdoor people. And there was this introverted quality. So I’m playing this concert, and I’m playing great songs. And they have their hands on their cheeks and their elbows on the tables, and they’re staring kind of like down at the floor. And I’m making jokes and nobody is laughing. And I finish a song and there’s polite clapping for the 160 people in the room. And I’m like, this should be awesome. And then this whole line of people start streaming up. And one after another, they’re like, they’re looking at the floor, “That was the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. I wanna buy everything you’ve ever made.” I mean, like, literally the stream. And I was like, “Oh. People are different.” And that moment, for me, Brainerd, Minnesota, taught me that I’m good at what I do. And if I’m open, and I’m true, and I’m giving it from a real place…
Nate: And you’re not worried about their reaction.
Joe: And I’m not worried about their reaction, then I play true and I just bring my best energy forward. And I would say that, yes, there are probably some people who sneak out at intermission and who go, “That’s not my thing.” That’s totally cool. I mean, that’s great. But I would say that many times, if I’m thinking I’m reading a room and they’re not into it, it’s almost that they’re kind of like soaking something in so deeply that they don’t even really wanna hoot and holler. They’re just saying, “Thank you for feeding me.” And that Brainerd, Minnesota, changed my whole perception of that. So now when I’m up there, I might for a moment, I’ll have this, “It’s not going well. And then I’m like, wait a minute. This goes well all the time. I believe in what I’m doing up there. I’ve worked it out. I know how to move on stage. I know how to…” And so there are times when I might say, “You know…”
I would play at Proctors Theater the other night in Schenectady. And someone yelled out a song as a request towards the end of the set. And I was like, I was having this please the crowd. “No. I don’t wanna do it.” I was like, “I’m not there.” I’m really good at that now. “Here’s what I really wanna do and the show is over,” and I felt like, yes.
Nate: Thank you Brainerd.
Joe: Yeah, right.
Nate: Nice one. So let’s get into mechanics a little bit. You tend to write to the melody, I think, I’ve noticed in some of your songs. You’ve got like a six four bar plus four, six, four, four. And then a couple of bars of four. And it’s obvious that you’re not like, “I’m gonna write a song with 6-4-4.” But it always follows the melody. A, hats off, kudos for making interesting mechanical music that’s like not super standard. I know you do tend to stick with diatonic harmony for the most part. And you’re not usually breaking ground in terms of harmonic content. You’re pretty comfy with the diatonic chords, which is to say, your art is more manipulating the melodic content, the lyrical content, and in this case, phrasing, your phrasing is always interesting. And I’m talking about little phrases and also the large phrase. Sometimes there’ll be an obvious line added at the end of…where all the other versus were this way, and then this one has an extra bar or two or taken away. Do you intend to do that or is it just sometimes the melody just dictates it or how does that work out?
Joe: What you just said is so…The word isn’t defensive at all. The word is kind of, “I want people to see me. I want people to see who I am as an artist.” And I think one of the things that happens is that the shifts and breaking, groundbreaking things that I do, are so subtle. Everything that I’m changing that isn’t folk music, “He’s a folk musician,” but I’m doing all of these things to change that so subtly that most people wouldn’t notice. But for me, it’s moving it away from something. It’s creating. So here’s an example of what I’m saying, just a real basic example. You grab a guitar. I’m gonna play A minor and G on guitar.
Joe: 99.99% of the people will grab an A-minor chord down on the first fret and then go do a G chord. And they’ll go and they’ll go back to the A-minor. That’s an A-minor and G.
Nate: It’s almost like you take an experiment, like put 20 people in a room and show them that chord and the other chord and 19 out of 20 will probably play the same thing.
Joe: It’s like, if you said, “Everybody play A-minor and G.” So everybody in the room is gonna grab their A-minor chord on the first fret and then go to the G on the second and third fret and back to the A-minor. If someone said, “Okay, everybody to play A-minor,” I’m gonna go to the fifth fret and play my A-minor with an added 9 on it.
Nate: You’re gonna leave the B string open.
Joe: I’m gonna leave the B string open, because that’s what I always do. Now, most people will be like, “This is all heady, but for me…” Sorry, just finish and say that like, I rarely play an A-minor down on the first fret. I play it on the fifth fret. And then while I’m doing that open B, I’m gonna hammer on. I’m gonna go…So, now, this is why it sounds like Joe Crookston song. And so, I’m always looking for ways not to be cliché, even though I’m kind of, you could say, cliché folk music.
Nate: If you listen from a distance and on the surface and you’re not paying attention, yes, I would say that probably a lot of people would dismiss it as standard folk. But I just wanted to add that one of the things that I love in that same song, “Nazarene,” which we’ll probably keep coming back to, when you say, “I’m learning minor chords.” The nine on the top of that.
Joe: Right. Which brings me to like the influx of dopamine in our brains. So, what you just said is awesome that you just said that, because basically, I’m using these pretty familiar structures from a D chord down to a B-minor. And if that melody followed that chord progression in a typical way, it would be nice, but because the melody goes up to the ninth and the harmonies, there’s this ninth above the minor which many people will say, “Oh, my god. I’ve got goose bumps all over my body when that note happened.” And I know that it happens. It’s kind of like, what our brain wants is for a moment of familiarity, familiarity, something surprising. Familiarity, familiarity. And that moment of surprise is where the goose bumps come on the arm, because it’s like a little bit of dopamine gets released into your brain.
Nate: Keep them guessing.
Nate: A lot of lessons here. So one of the things that I love, that I hope for this podcast to achieve, is to not only enlighten people that are interested in my guests and things, but also to encourage people who haven’t necessarily tried to write a song or play the guitar or sing, to think, “Well, I can do that.” And part of the service that I hope to provide is that people will be inspired by different ideas. So, between Brainerd and the ninth chord, we’re on the track, I think.
Joe: Yeah. I would even say, you mentioned a couple of times, “Caitlin at the Window,” a song of mine. And when I first wrote that, it was a very similar chord progression. It was like,
I sailed you home,
across the sea.
Alcohol and poetry
So that’s the way I wrote it. But then I’m like, “Nope. I need something in there that comes as a surprise. I don’t want it all to be…I want it just a moment.” So now,
I sailed you home,
across the sea.
And then when I sing that ninth above the minor chord, it’s just woo.
Nate: It does. It does light up this.
Joe: And it’s like a moment like, oh yes. I’m committed. I wanna know more of this song.
Nate: Which chakra does that get? It hits one of them.
Joe: I don’t know, but that’s…I don’t know the answer to that at all but I believe that it does hit us in a way that is familiar, familiar, surprise. And I think that music needs to have familiar, familiar, surprise, and to be, for me, to be consistently interesting.
Nate: I’ve worked in your band and I was impressed by the amount of control that you kept on what happened. I feel like that is, for you, an issue of integrity, because people are paying to see you, your name’s on the ticket. You don’t want five different people just blowing lines over…And I’m not talking about drugs, playing, just like noodling over your songs. But how do you approach collaboration? Because I know you’re someone who likes to take chances too. So I guess, I’m just throwing this out here. It’s just a concept of maybe about, how do you balance controlling the people you’re working with? Obviously studio versus live. In the studio you can try everything and you don’t have to use it, but live, once you’re out there on the stage, you’re kind of at the mercy of your band mates to make sure they don’t blow it. Please, talk about that a little bit.
Joe: Yeah, God. I love that you’re asking these questions. And I love it because I have an answer, some things thought out. And then it just opens up like this big area of like, “I have no idea.” Like it’s almost like me diving into the darkness. And so the answer that I have, one of the thoughts that I have is that, I imagine my shows being, if I had to say a comparison, it would be that I wrote Stravinsky’s, “Rite of Spring,” and in my head I have Stravinsky’s, “Rite of Spring.” It’s note for note when the…and when the cymbals come in and when the cellos, and then here’s the moment when…you know what I mean. And hear it all in my head.
So what I think a struggle of mine is, as an artist, is that, I hear this happening in my head, and then I want to write out the script and how the orchestra play, what I hear in my head. And that’s the music that I wanna hear. And then half way through, the “Rite of Spring,” while the orchestra is jamming, something happens that we go into an eight and a half minute just total improve on stage and the crowd goes crazy. They’re like, “Oh my God.” That will never happen again and it’s absolutely mind boggling. The energy of that was awesome. And then instantaneously, they come back to finish the “Rite of Spring,” as written perfectly as supposed to be. That’s impossible. I’m basically the reason I said it’s like you’re asking me a question, I do not know how to be on stage with other musicians and find that absolute balance of, now is the moment when everybody lets go and just go for it, like be completely free, and now go back to the page. And I feel like there’s something in this that we’re exploring right now, live right here on this, that is so deep for me to figure out, because it’s something I need and want to understand more.
Nate: Yeah. Well, I know, I’m not the only person. I’m sure several of our listeners right now are thinking, we’ve got to check out Frank Zappa. Because he definitely does that. And you’ll hear many people talk about how he was like a dictator, or whatever. He called the shots and everything was written out. But there was definitely, I don’t wanna say most, but lots of his music was he reached a point in the song and the switch flips. And it becomes a collective improvisation. And then there’s some way, and this was part of the art, was how to signal that we’re about to come back together. And then when you hear this certain thing four times or whatever, twice, and then at this point, we’re back into the song.
Joe: That is exactly it. That is exactly. And honestly, I think that, even when we’ve performed together, I think there’s, “Here’s the song, but then at the end, we’re all gonna go into this thing that we’re all, now, just go for it.” Maybe that’s my attempt at what you just said about Frank Zappa. And it’s really deep for me, not like, “Well, you know, I don’t collaborate well.” No. Or I’m super spontaneous on stage, and instantaneously, I’m very like, “This is exactly how hear it in my head.”
Nate: I would like to get Peter’s take on it because I imagine that you guys…I mean, I work with Sammy a lot and we have this thing where we can almost read each other’s mind when we just look at each other and all it takes is just an instant like I just know that he wants me to either slow down, play harder, or be more consistent, or go crazy, or whatever it is.
Joe: I would say Peter Glanville who played…We’re not playing together so much right now. He’s not able to travel much at all. So that’s a big thing in terms of…But what I would say about him is just that he was so willing to work out parts and love doing. He’s kind of like me in that way.
Joe: Exactly what’s supposed to happen when and where? And then when I turn to him and I’d say, “What you got?” That means, that was one of our little verbal things for like, “Just go for it. And as long as I’m going like this and strumming hard, you do whatever you want and we’re just gonna make noise until we come back.” So I think we did kind of get there. But when it’s with a whole band, and we’re not used to playing together, I think it stresses me out, because I’m not able to fully breathe into each of those parts as well.
Nate: Well, part of it is also that you are so emotionally invested in your songs and in your show, I think, that you need everyone to have your back. You don’t want to have like a lot of wildcats in the deck.
Joe: Yeah, it’s true.
Nate: You wanna know what you’re dealing with. That makes sense to me.
Joe: Yeah. I mean, I think about like watching someone like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings on stage. Talk about worked out.
look at me so hail,
She is running around with a ragged top down
Joe: Every tone and every wrist, every tip of the hat and every bend, I mean, it’s so precise. And honestly, I’m not saying that that’s influenced this but I’m just using it as a reference point of like…
Nate: It can be too much sometimes, maybe.
Joe: Or it’s amazing when it’s that thought out. It’s awesome. That is awesome music.
Nate: I guess that’s just less my cup of tea, maybe, is what I’m saying. When something so worked out that there’s a lack of spontaneity, every night it’s the same show.
Joe: Oh, no. See, and that’s the thing is that, maybe when I’m alone, this is where I feel like I can be Frank Zappa’s band. I am. That’s exactly…
Nate: As a solo artist.
Joe: I’m on stage at Proctors Theater with 300 people and I am alone and I’m Frank Zappa’s band. So I’m super precise and very melodic and telling the right stories and just feels so great. And then instantly, I go into some song I’ve never even played. Like what am I doing? And then I’ll come back. So alone I can do that.
Here lies the wrong girl,
North Carolina home,
Down below the twisted,
Oh, beneath the chiseled stone,
Here lies the wrong girl.
Joe: And read the energy of myself and the crowd so easily without having to…then I’m like, “Oh, Nate, I’m sorry. I totally just went there.” I don’t wanna let you down.
Nate: I’m kind of thinking I can go into music business a little bit, but I think really, I wanna focus more on songs. Why do you rhyme? What is poetry in song and in lyric? And why do we rhyme in songs? It’s like a cardinal rule in songwriting, isn’t it?
Joe: I think rhyme is rhythm. I mean, for me, rhyming is rhythm. And I think I could explore this a little bit.
Nate: I know exactly what you mean. Please do explain it, but I think I know exactly what you mean. Can I maybe take a shot at explaining it?
Nate: So when you say rhyming is rhythm, you mean so rhythm is a collection of events in time that become somewhat predictable or measured. They use common units so that once you feel a tempo, and a rhythm is like, how do you fit that tempo? How do you express that tempo? So a rhyme, in a way, is the same thing in that you’re setting up a rhythm where there’s a marker at the end of this phrase and a marker at the end of that phrase. And, obviously, you go into hip-hop and you’ll see, and some of your music too, where it’s not the last word in every line that rhymes, it’s the middle one or the third one, and then there’s one here, and then two on that line. So that’s more advanced.
Joe: But that’s rhythm.
Nate: That just gives you rhythm. So why rhythm? Go ahead.
Joe: Why rhythm? It’s because, I think, that goes back to that familiarity thing. Think of music, why rhythm? Because that is the most basic primal guttural, yeah, it’s our heartbeat, right? So we have that kind of a…
Nate: The earth goes around the sun, that’s a rhythm.
Joe: Yeah, it’s rhythm. So for me, rhyming is essential. And I mean this like, “Okay, now, let’s break that rule. Let’s do different rhythm, or let’s do different rhyming or change it up.” I’m not at all saying a song needs to be rhyme in order to be good. I’m saying that like in a standard songwriting kind of a context, rhyming helps the rhythm accentuate and flow so that there can be a trans-, on some level, a trans-mentality that you can get into. It’s kind of why…I think of it as an old time music. If you’re like…There’s rhyming.
Joe: There’s… Right? It kind of helps that song and it allows you to stay in that trans of it. The other thing I would say about rhyming is that if you probably listen to a lot of my songs, I’m really also interested in soft invisible rhymes that support the rhythm without ever being obvious or without being hard rhyme. So an example of a hard rhyme would be, “I was walking and I got on to the elevator. And then…”
Nate: Go ahead. I wanna hear it, how you’re gonna get out of this one.
Joe: Yeah. “It was Halloween, and a guy dressed like an alligator,” or whatever, you know what I mean?
Nate: That’s a hard rhyme.
Joe: That’s pathetic hard rhyming. So a lot of times, my music will have a lot of U’s in it. Get it on like lovers do. Words that are conversational and that happen. So if I said, “Lovers get together, they start out big and true. Late night in the parking lot, get it on like lovers do.” Get it on like lovers do, is almost a throw away. It rhymes, but I’m not accentuating that rhyme. I wanna de-accentuate rhymes and let them be soft and visible rhymes. But that helps the flow. Now, I’m in this flow of rhythm.
Nate: Creating momentum.
Joe: Yes. And even it’s like the payoff can be so nice. And not always, and I’m just exploring that since you asked. I think that there’s a really important part of it. Poetry, the written word, isn’t supposed to rhyme. That’s not about rhyming. That’s the way it looks on the page. There’s some crossover between the songs and poems, but it’s a totally different art form.
Nate: Yeah, very interesting. Also, I would add that with the rhythm, and why we all need rhythm and love rhythm, is that it connects us. If there were no such thing as rhythm, like, I’ll just go even further out. Like women menstruate at the same time in the month when they are living together, type of thing.
Joe: Yeah, like pheromones, they’re like following each other.
Nate: When a whole crowd is clapping, if they continued to clap, they eventually fall into…and even people have done things where they’re intentionally set up to be random, but I’ll look it up and I’ll post a link to it or something, but where inanimate objects will kind of come into sync together. And there’s like a connection there. There’s like a communion there.
Joe: There’s like a human sort of pull towards binding that itself together to become a whole self or something like that.
Nate: The footage from, is it “Baracka” or [inaudible 01:07:20], they’re all sitting in the circle and they’re all waving their hand this way and then they turned to the other way chanting. It’s all the same desire, I think. And maybe it’s, in a way, contrary to that whole other desire we were talking about before, everyone wants to be their own individual creative self. There’s also a desire, I think, that kind of runs concurrent with that or opposed to that which is that we all wanna feel like we’re part of a community and we wanna belong.
Joe: Yeah. And I really love what you’re saying and I would say that maybe rhyme sounds like a pedestrian thing to talk about with songwriting. Like, “Do you rhyme or don’t you rhyme?” And I would say, you could take rhyming apart into internal rhymes, into soft rhymes, into B rhymes. Like there are so many…
Nate: Rhyming the word with the same word, do you ever do that?
Joe: Yeah, I’ve done it before, yeah. If it sounds natural in a conversation, a lot of times, internal rhyming…
Nate: Does “Black Dress” have a verse like that?
Joe: Don’t think so. I’d have to go through my songs. I’m sure I’ve done it before.
Nate: Quickly, back to “Black Dress,” I just wanna say that I wonder how marriages that song has potentially saved.
Joe: Right. They’re like, “Better not.”
Nate: Do you ever consider doing, or have you got like proper music videos, official music videos? Do you see yourself doing that? I think your music, I could see there’s a lot of potential for a very nice creative tasteful, artful music video, animated maybe, or anything like that?
Joe: I’ve made some of my own with my own paintings, since I do a lot of paintings, and I’ve done animations in Photoshop. I just basically, I’ve had some of them were this like birds flying. And I basically, in Photoshop, will take a painting of like a bird of mine and then I will flatten the image and then I’ll move it like half an inch and then I’ll make another image and flattened it. And then I’ll put them all in iMovie and just have this kind of a thing, like one of those flip cards, flip books.
Nate: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking of.
Joe: You know what I would say just brings up something for me is that, in this world right now that we’re living in, people come to my concerts. And this is what they say, “Oh my God we heard you and we love you, blah, blah, blah.” And then another person will come up and say, “Well, a friend of mine recommended you. They said you were great. And so, I went to YouTube and it was okay, but I came anyhow. But oh my God, I had no idea you could do all this stuff on stage. It was unbelievable show.” And there’s something about that. it’s like, I’m almost gonna cry right now because I’m living in this world where I can’t do it. I can’t make all these amazing videos and do everything. So what I feel like people are using YouTube right now as like, “Are you worth my time to go see.”
Nate: How many hits do you have?
Joe: And how many hits? And even just like quickly, the first one that pops up, “That’s not my thing.” I’m like, “Oh, no.” So my response to what you’re saying about videos is like, I would love to work with someone over the next six months, eight months, to make some really interesting, because I have it in me. It’s just really, can I present to the world who I am online? That takes…
Nate: I suppose. I mean, you’re coming at it from a potential promotional, I guess, or calling card type of thing. But I mean, I think also just as an art, would separate it from business. I mean, it’s always connected. But I could see some really beautiful stuff that maybe would or wouldn’t make somebody come to your concert but just would be fun and beautiful, and some of it possibly very cathartic.
Joe: We’ve talked a lot about The Nazarene, and there’s an animated video that I made for “The Nazarene.”
Nate: Well, I’m gonna look to it, look under this podcast, there’ll be a link there.
Joe: Yeah. So The Nazarene. And there’s one, “Everything Here is Good.”
Find a brick made of clay
Red and brown and lay it down
Put a vase made of glass
On the brick and back away
And everything here is good
Spins and balances as it shine
The gear is greased and the glass is clean
Here in the castle of my dreams
Then put a ball on top the vase
Balance perfectly in place…
Nate: That’s the 6-4-4-4 one I was talking earlier.
Joe: Yes, and it’s animated and it has this painting that then sits in still and then it comes to life and the birds fly off the painting. And this is all me just so…I do have what you’re talking…Maybe my response was kind of like, I’ve done all this like art videos and kind of like, it’s kind of like expressing this quirky joke art thing. But maybe what I question is, how does that translate to the greater world? Sometimes it hits for people and they’re like, “Oh, it’s so awesome.” And I feel like I just plug away at creating the best art I know how to make, and as uniquely and as quirky as it is, that’s all I know how to do.
Nate: I would love for you to…I would love to see you link up with the Barr Brothers.
Joe: I love them.
Nate: I turned you on to the Barr Brothers a little while ago, and one of these days I’m gonna talk to Brad here. But they’ve done some really creative videos, and clearly, collaborating with very creative cinematographers that are not using standard playbooks. They’re just starting with the premise and the band is like, “We’ll do it. We’ll do whatever you say. We trust you.”
Joe: I would like to meet someone who does video that way.
Nate: I’m going to be calling Brad to talk to him. Let’s just talk quickly about the Barr Brothers. So I gave you a heads up about them. Did you end up seeing them play live, or you did not see…?
Joe: No, I didn’t see them play alive. I think you saw them at the Colony in Woodstock.
Nate: I did just recently at Lee Van Hilton’s [SP] bar.
Joe: Yeah, Lee Van Hilton’s place. No, so I haven’t seen them live but I got the record that you recommended. And then when their next double album, “Sleeping Operator” came out, I got that and I have it on Vinyl. So basically, that’s one of my thing I’ll paint in my studio. It’s like I have my vinyl there and it’s like Bon Iver, it’s Imogen Heap, it’s the Barr Brothers. Darlingside is a band I really like a lot. But the Barr Brothers…
Nate: Keep going, keep going. Who else should we check out?
Joe: Well, Imogen Heap, I’m obsessed with her, a British…Darlingside, I would say that I… Oh no, no…
Nate: You’ve got five minutes. How about that? Tell me why each one is awesome and what it is about them that you love so much?
Joe: Imogen Heap is British. She won a Grammy for Producer of the Year for her own produced record that she did. What I’d say is she’s a master of tone and soundscapes. And she can basically pull together all of these disparate sounds and round them off and shave them and EQ them and kind of almost like hone them down to perfection, but then at the exact same moment, the music has soul and energy and it’s alive and breathing. She doesn’t squeeze the life out of her music. So for me, as wanting to make music that’s kind of like, has a perfect quality to it, but then still has a lot of soul and guts and a lot of like, “I want a repeated listening and be in it.”
I feel like the same way about Bon Iver. Bon Iver is kind of like he is able to use samples and auto-tunes and a lot of electronic stuff in his music. But ultimately, it comes out as something that has so much soul. And it’s like, “Oh, this isn’t just heady music that’s been done on the computer.” And that to me is something that’s just so intriguing to me. Maybe I’m intrigued because I’m a folk…I’m a guitar player. I play banjo and violin and slide guitar. So I want my music to mean something. I want it to have a soul to it that’s like a living breathing human thing. So that’s why I’ve avoided, sometimes, auto-tune and crazy samples, like it doesn’t resonate for me. But it’s starting to intrigue me, how could I make soulful meaningful connecting music that’s still used a lot of these experimental electronic.
Nate: Well, I heard you talking about your project with the incarcerated youth and how you were inspired by their approach to just layering where it’s just a loop-based art where you have the basic loop and then you add another loop on top. And it’s just a layering thing.
Joe: Yeah, that’s totally right. And I think, working at the juvenile, I learned so much about not just strumming the guitar and taking up all the space and then the song is over then trying to add a few things to that, it was more like, “Okay, you’re gonna go… and you’re gonna do that for three minutes. And then we’re gonna add… and you’re gonna go… for three minutes.”
Nate: The song is defined by that two bar phrase, in away.
Joe: In a way, yeah. And maybe just the jig-saw puzzle of it all fits together and everybody has their own little part. We recorded a little bit and one of my experience, remember, Nate, on my record “Georgia, I’m here,” I love Indonesian Gamelan music. And I love Gamelan music for the reason that it’s all of these…Everyone is doing one small part but there might be 100 people all doing a small part and it all adds up to this beautiful landscape sort of tapestry. And that to me is something maybe I’m moving towards. So now, that runs totally opposite of being a solo performer. How do I do that?
Nate: Right before we came in the booth, we were talking about, and I kind of got this image of this line on the left that like sprouts out into 10 lines and comes back together into one line on the right. It’s kind of like, my graph for Joe Crookston’s life. It’s like you’ve sprout out into all these different things and then maybe when you’re 90 on your pouch, you’ll be strumming your banjo and you’ll your one thing again. But like, right now, you’re in this phase where it’s actually great to…I’d love to hear Joe do an album based on layered beats, take away the guitar entirely. One of the best producers, I’ve worked with a bunch of different producers over my career, and one of the best producers moves that I’ve ever seen was take the drummer’s left stick away, right stick away, things like that where you just remove the crutches or the go-tos and make somebody work, be like, “Joe, you’ve got a drum machine and these gongs and your voice. Make a record.”
Joe: And maybe your pedal steel or something.
Nate: No, no pedal steel.
Joe: I’m like, “Please, please.” Just one thing.
Nate: Just one drum machine, gong, and your voice. That’s it.
Joe: Great, I love it. And you know what…
Nate: That’s due in two weeks.
Joe: I would make something great, I think, of that, or at least great for me, I would have a great time doing it.
Nate: What would it cost me to get you to do that?
Joe: I don’t know. I don’t know.
Nate: I wanna buy two weeks of your time.
Joe: Now, we’ve talked a little bit about this is that I believe that I really have the sense that my next record, I already the title is “Ten Becomes One.” So “Ten Becomes One” is all of these disparate parts that I’m talking about, that I’m in love with Irish fiddle. I play Irish fiddle tunes. I play southern, I play Blue Slide, all these things and they’re all a deep part of me, except I’m not any one of those things. I’m the combination of those. So “Ten Becomes One” is exactly what you said, these lines that kind of go off and then come back to one. But it’s not a returning to something that was before, it’s a returning to the combination and the wholeness of all of these together. That is my journey as an artist, is to find what that one is ten disparate parts have gone off in all of these tentacles and they’re needing to come back into one whole. And I will not put out another recording until…my intention is that it is ten becomes one, is the one.
Nate: I’d be careful with that because I feel like that “Ten Becomes One” might be a lifetime swan song type of a release where you might wanna do ten individual albums first of each of one of them and really let those all breathe and grow and develop and become what they are, then try to combine them when you’re 80, 90, or something. I mean, of course, you don’t wanna be gone and never get to it. So maybe, start working on it. I know you’ve started working on it. And it’s funny that I had that image and I had forgotten you had talked about that with me, and it’s stuck into my subconscious, but I forgot that you had mentioned, and I even said ten.
Joe: I really like what you just said. I like that the little bit of a cautionary tale of not wanting to clump it down too soon or something like that. I really appreciate that. And at the same time, I do think that I have no interest in making an Irish fiddle tune album. It’s not like total like Blue Slide. It feels in authentic. And I think because it’s not like, “Yeah, I’m gonna do my blues album.” And it’s like, “Okay, no, that sounds unauthentic.” But, can I take elements of the blues, of the slide and bring it into a whole. I do feel like it’s maybe my next five albums will be the ten becomes seven, and then it becomes four and then it becomes three, and then finally, when I’m 90, it will become one. Maybe, that’s a different way to put it.
Nate: This one song.
Joe: But definitely doesn’t feel like that. It feels like a real desire to get in my power as fully as I can as an artist.
Nate: Okay, quick lightning round. Lo-Fi versus Hi-Fi.
Joe: Hi-Fi because it’s what I know. Lo-Fi is looking over the edge and seeing, “Here’s what the cool people are doing, and I get it, except I’m out of the world and I can’t pretend that I’m in that world.” That’s what I would say. I get it. And I get but yet here I am probably gonna make another digital record.
Nate: Dream mix, versus meter maid mix. What’s a meter maid mix? Is it a woman that’s watching the VU meters at the studio or?
Joe: And what’s the meter maid on Cougar [SP] Street.
Nate: What year?
Joe: Two thousand fourteen, slipping a paper parking ticket under a guy’s windshield wiper. He comes out and he sees her. This is Ithaca outside the post office. And I walk out and she’s slipping this paper ticket underneath his windshield wiper. And he starts just yelling at her and just screaming right in her face, and she just rolls her eyes and she slips it a little deeper under and walks along towards Buffalo Street. And so I’m parked over by Buffalo so I’m kind of like now following her. I’m feeling bad. And this guy turns the corner Ithaca, New York, in a sarong and a jester hat, like with pompoms. And he sees the meter and he starts going, “Lovely Arita, meter maid.” This was all like in 12 seconds over the life of the meter maid, and I’m like, “God help her. God help us all.” So I went home and I just quickly sketched out that song. Like literally, it took me 20 minutes to just write it out. And the way I think about it is kind of a collage…
Nate: You should tell people which song you mean.
Joe: Riding the Train with a Beautiful Girl.
Looking ahead in a troubled world
Riding the train with a beautiful girl
And everything changes
And everything dies
Dreams are out of the round
And I still love you.
Joe: I have two versions of it. One is called “Riding the Train with a Beautiful Girl, the Meter Maid Mix,” because the meter maid shows up in that one. And then, the other one, the meter maid doesn’t show up.
Nate: Oh, so it’s a lyrical difference for the most part.
Joe: Yeah, it’s a lyrical difference. Oh, no, totally different songs. One of it is kind of country pedal steel kind of thing and the other one’s a very soft solo thing. It’s just a little…It was me watching this kind of absurd moment of like hatred, anger versus this trippy dude and the meter maid and just kind of like, we are bumbling and plotting our way through life, all of us. Look at us, the absurdity.
Nate: Nice. Do you think that we’re ever gonna get album credits on streaming music? How are we gonna do that?
Joe: What I would say is, maybe, just to riff off of that a little bit, I think it’s why I’m painting right now. I’m loving the physical tactile, putting paint on a painting, taking them to shows, setting them on stage, people come up, they touch them, they look at them. I think that my response to what you’re saying is I don’t know the answer to that but I do know that there’s something very, very beautiful about a tactile experience that I miss and in many ways, I’m trying to provide some tactile experiences for my fans, giving them postcards and songbooks, and not even selling it. Just like, “Here it is. This another part of what you can interact with, with my art. You can come up and look at the songbook. You can take this postcards home with paintings on them.”
Nate: So the paintings aren’t for sale, usually.
Joe: No, I will sell them. I will sell the paintings but they’re not there to be…It’s not like a marketing thing. It’s more of like, I set them up on my stage now and people can look at them and touch them. I like that. So that’s maybe a response to that is I believe in good amount of tactile experience with our world around us.
Nate: You give hugs after the set.
Joe: No, less than I used to. That’s a different story.
Nate: Okay. We’ll talk about that one next time, maybe. One time I tried to hug Walter Hang. He wasn’t having it.
Joe: You know what, I would say this goes back to the empathy thing. I have a lot of connection with people. So after a show there’s a lot of bzzz, people are like…and I now, I’ve learned that they need to process that buzz somewhere else, not to me. So I hang a little more, and I need to let people process their experience in the car, on the way home, and the next morning with their partner, whoever, not with me.
Nate: Joe Crookston, thank you so much.
Joe: Nate Richardson.
Nate: That was a blast. I really appreciate you coming on the podcast. People check the links below. We’re gonna have a lot of links for you to check out. And go see Joe if you get a chance. Where are you gonna be in 2017?
Joe: Well, 2017, I’ll head of to Ireland which I go every year. I go over there for at least just a couple of weeks.
Nate: I wanna go, so joecrookston.com?
Joe: Yeah, joecrookston.com. So Ireland. I’m gonna be heading off to Lincoln, Nebraska. I’ve got some Canadian festivals for you.
Nate: Vancouver, Ottawa, where?
Joe: I’m gonna be in Ontario, I’m gonna be at Summer Folk, I’m gonna be at the Mariposa Folk Festival.
Nate: Do you ever get out to the Maritimes?
Joe: No, but I will.
Nate: It’s pretty sweet.
Joe: So all over, you know?
Nate: I got to get you hooked up with the Barr Brothers.
Joe: I would love to. That would be a dream come true.
Nate: I bet they would love that too. All right, Joe. Thanks a lot.
Joe: Thanks, Nate.
Nate: The Power of Song Podcast is brought to you by ChangingAging Tour, changingaging.org, the Idea Farm, and the Center for Growing and Becoming. It is my intention to help empower listeners’ creative sides, through discussions with song writers about their processes and philosophies. Please leave a comment, subscribe, share, and tell your grandma. Thanks for listening. Once again, I’m Nate Silas Richardson. My guest today was Joe Crookston. We’ll be back soon for our next episode. Until then, keep those creative juices flowing. Peace.
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