Tom Russell’s new album, Blood and Candle Smoke (September 15, Shout! Factory) further solidified Russell’s reputation as one of the most gifted and poetic songwriters working in music today. As Russell weaves and wanders his way through a dusty sonic landscape created by a cast of musicians including Winston Watson, Barry Walsh and members of Calexico, the songs wind into one another, unrepentant veins all leading back to the proud, stubborn, poetic heart tucked away in Russell’s chest.
In a blog post introducing Blood and Candle Smoke, Russell asserted that “there are few songs,” which struck me as an interesting assertion. As somebody who is currently writing, singing, and listening to songs on a daily basis, I would be lying if I said I agreed with Mr. Russell. That’s an awfully sweeping and dismissive statement to make, but I wanted to discuss that statement – and Mr. Russell’s fine new record – with him, so I did just that.
Let’s start with the landscape that Blood and Candle Smoke was released into. In the post on your blog that “introduces” Blood and Candle Smoke, you say, “people are hungry for anything vaguely real….but there are few new songs.” Where does somebody – or, more specifically, where do you – draw the line between the $0.99 products iTunes peddles as “singles” and songs?
What I am attempting to say is that the current music scene is a vast vacuum. Nada. To quote Bukowski, “it’s the dead fucking the dead in a vacuum.” I grew up in an era when Dylan wrote all of Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, plus the outtakes, in 18 months. It had nothing to do with the 60’s or the 90’s or downloading or uploading or anything. It just happened out there in art space. Like Van Gogh’s great paintings had nothing to do with an “era.” They exploded. Nobody is writing songs that will make you pull your car over to the side of the road and weep or get the chills.
It’s all about meekness and fear now. Either that or these new writers are speaking in a lingo that doesn’t reach me. Leonard Cohen reaches me. We live in fearful times of “new folk” zombies sort of going through arch motions.
I’m always open to hearing something chillingly good. Name me some songs.
A sort of extension to that last question is differentiating between a collection of ten or twelve “singles” for iTunes and an album; a complete, cohesive piece of art. To me, Blood and Candle Smoke is a phenomenal collection of songs but it’s also a phenomenal album. It’s a puzzle where each piece is as beautiful and intricate as the completed puzzle itself. Is it safe to assume that the songs on this album inform one another, that they were intended to be this cohesive?
Yes. I think they inform each other because they came out of a feeling or a desire to dig deeper, and suddenly up came these old images of living in Africa and visiting Mexico… images came to the surface of the skin and soul, like old bullet fragments which suddenly appear.
There is a feeling on this record of looking hard at times and people that have moved me: Graham Greene, Nina Simone, the white priestess of Oshogbo (Suzanne Wenger), and my wife, and putting them in proper emotional context without regard for radio formats or fearful needs of this flabby-assed culture. Obviously the musical backdrops enhance the puzzle.
To take this one step further before moving on, how important is it to both compartmentalize and contextualize this record – or any record – in terms of an artist’s body of work. For instance, some people (myself included) can look at Dylan’s catalogue and say, okay, I don’t especially dig Self Portrait but if I connect enough dots, I can see how it made Blood on the Tracks possible. When you make a record, how easy is it for you to trace elements of it back to your previous work, or is each album an individual work in and of itself?
You can look at it both ways. This record is a major step forward from Love and Fear and I had to hit those touchstones to reach a new plateau. If somone is really interested they could look at The Man From God Knows Where, Hotwalker, and Love and Fear, and find some touchstones but, really, a record or a painting or a novel should stand on it’s own.
Frankly the one problem with the press (only in this country) is they look at “who you are” first before they consider a record or a book, so it’s hard for someone to judge or listen to a record if they don’t consider your age or previous output and that predjudices and hurts a record like this… but onward.
Speaking of Dylan, he’s now singing “Shooting Star” like Maurice Chevalier and moving like Chaplin behind the keys. Maybe more than anyone, he seems to have a very clear understanding of the distinction between recording songs and performing songs. You’re going to be out on tour for a while, is every show different? Are there thematic elements you want to drive home with each tour?
I’m performing all the songs off of Blood and Candle Smoke every night and they mutate and change and sparkle and go in different directions every night.
The record had a sonic backdrop of great musicians: Calexico, Gretchen Peters, Barry Walsh, Winston Watson, but live and accoustic they find their own place – stripped down to the essence. So people can get the core songs in their face and then refer back to the larger backdrops in the recording. My only “theme” nightly is to sing honestly and stay inside the songs. It’s safe there. The rest is all fruit platters and open road.
You touch on Calexico’s involvement in Blood and Candle Smoke on your blog, but if you don’t mind – how did it come about? As a follow-up, did you take the songs to Calexico or was much writing done in the studio? How was the process different than getting together the usual suspects in Austin and making the record there?
I really heard Calexico on that I’m Not There soundtrack. I liked the grooves and the Mariachi trumpet. All the songs were written before coming in – I just sat there and sang them. Of course Calexico influenced this record, but also Barry Walsh, who layed the classical piano beds (he played with Roy Orbison) and Winston Watson, the drummer who played with Dylan. All the Tucson players were great… Nick Luca and Chris Gimabelucca and Jacob Valenzuela. So it went beyond Calexico.
In that same vein, you also mentioned that you had been searching out new music since hearing Jim James and Calexico perform “Goin’ to Acapulco” in I’m Not There. Are there other newer artists you’re listening to?
Not much. I like some of Neko Case’s stuff. I liked Amy Winehouse’s “Tried to Make Me Go To Rehab,” but I don’t hear much. It all sound weak-willed, like the poetry of teenagers. Not quite formed. I’d rather go back and listen to old Fred Neil records. This is the age of non-dairy creamer.
Alright, so, when you sneak out to the studio under the guise of taking out the trash, how do you decide whether to pickup the guitar or the paintbrush?
I write in the mornings. I paint at night. Or whenever I can sneak away from the chores. I have to water the fruit trees and feed the geese. But painting provides a little touch of stepping outside of TIME, like Picasso said, “I leave my mind
outside the studio like moslems leave their slippers outside the mosque…” (Something like that, Pablo.)
I haven’t yet read a review of Blood and Candle Smoke that referred to it as an overtly “political” work but I would argue that anything real that’s cast out into this “fear driven mess,” as you describe it is, in some way, a reaction to – and has an impact on – that mess. How much of Blood and Candle Smoke, if any of it, was written as a reaction to the world it’s being cast into?
Not much. I’m not a topical writer (per say.) I’m a bit of a crank and I live in El Paso near the frontier of Juarez where the biggest war in the world is taking place. I have a sense of my own place as an outsider and I never took this overall culture too
seriously ’cause most people get all their facts and info off the 6 O’Clock news and it’s all formulated doom. I feel like I have my own personal culture and it revolves around my family and my creative work. The rest of it is all a big, dead, Vanity Fair magazine. It’s a door stop.
Finally in the aforementioned introductory Blood and Candle Smoke blog post, you say, “I believe in this record, and I don’t believe in much else.” What else do you believe in? What else is worth believing in?
My wife. The catalogue of Bob Dylan. The works of Graham Greene. Leonard Cohen. Muhammad Ali. Our Lady of Guadalupe. Damien of Molakai. Christ, I don’t know… laundry lists are useless. I believe in the ability of true art to heal and move people into a little timeless corridor for a few moments and save them from the rages of bordeom and soul-corrosion. I’m not trying to be cute, but that’s a hard question. All answers are in the songs. That’s the best I can do. I’m not a self-help philosopher.