Jarrod DIckenson - Interview
published: 31 / 10 / 2017
After a long wait and a move to a major label, Texas-born singer-songwriter Jarrod Dickenson is ready to unveil 'Ready The Horses' to a growing fanbase. He tells Ben Howarth about his love of recording on 2-inch tape and his desire to reach for the classic sounds of the 50's and 60's.
I first heard about Jarrod Dickenson when I interviewed one of my favourite songwriters, David Ford, in 2013. Instead of touring with a conventional band, he had hand-picked two of his favourite new songwriters to tour with him as a trio, each acting as the backing band for the others. Immaculately turned out, invariably hatted and jacketed, with a carefully nurtured moustache and beard, Dickenson has no shame about embracing his love of 1950's and 1960's country in everything he does. ‘The Lonesome Traveller’, the album he was promoting on that tour, quickly became one of my most listened to albums, so good that, if you didn’t know Jarrod was still in his twenties, you’d assume it was a lot classic from country’s glory days. Though born in Texas, Jarrod was actually something of a late convert to country music – he didn’t really appreciate the sounds of his home state until he had moved to New York. By that time, he’d already cut an album of folky singer-songwriter rock. It is fair to say that, while there were glimpses of talent in his earlier record, ‘The Lonesome Traveller’ was a coming of age. Though he has returned to the UK repeatedly in the four years since that visit, it has been a long wait for a follow-up album. Tantalisingly, a March release date had been set for the follow up and fans were primed to be able to pick up copies of the record on tour. In the end I had to make do with a T-shirt, as it was announced that – for reasons to be confirmed – the release had been put back to later in the year. A few months later, we found out why there had been the delay. Jarrod announced that he had been snapped up by major label Decca, who would now be releasing ‘Ready The Horses’. Clearly enticed by his unmistakable voice, unforgettable melodies and inimitable style, his new label have bought themselves a gem. ‘Ready The Horses’ is a belter – adding soul and swing to his already delicious blend of country and folk. It is a collection of ten songs, all of which you will want to play on repeat. It may have been a long time coming, but the wait is worth it. Shortly before the record’s release date, and as Jarrod got ready to make yet another flight to the UK (his wife, Claire – who accompanies him on vocals at every show – is Irish, so he can’t really mind coming back), he sat down to tell Pennyblackmusic about his excitement at finally seeing his album released. I began by asking how the deal with Decca had come about. “Decca had first expressed an interest over a year before”, he explained, “and we had been talking to them about it. But, it had got to the end of the year and it didn’t seem to be moving along, so we eventually decided we were going to self-release in March. Then, in January of this year, I was in the UK again, opening up for a guy named the White Buffalo. Some of the Decca guys came out to the London show at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire and I suppose that changed their minds, I guess. I don’t really know how these things work. But from there, it seemed like it was a ‘go’. So we were obviously more than happy to push back the release date to get to work with a label like Decca. It’s a pretty exciting thing.” PB: What do you think that they give you that you wouldn’t have got from releasing the album yourself? JD: Well, just a wider reach really. These days, we like to say that the independent artist can do all the things that the big label can do. And maybe that’s true if you have more money than anyone I’ve ever met (laughs). But, short of that, you know, you still can benefit greatly from having someone with that kind of sway behind you. But, more than anything, it’s nice to have a team behind you that’s as excited about the music as we are. That’s been the nicest surprise – it does seem that everyone in the office is really excited about the project. PB: Are you working mainly with people in the UK office of Decca? JD: Yeah, I am. They are mostly all based in the UK. PB: That brings me on to the next thing I was going to ask about. The first time I saw you play was when you played with David Ford in 2013 – I don’t know if that was actually your first visit, but I think at that point you were playing mostly to people who didn’t know your music. Did you imagine at that point that playing in the UK would be such a big part of your music career? JD: Well, I had been over a couple of times before. I had been over to Belfast to play at the Belfast Nashville songwriters festival a couple of years in a row. And I had done a few kind of random gigs spotted around the UK. But that was definitely my first real UK tour. So, at that point, I was just happy to have some gigs and excited to come and play in a fairly new place for me. But, after the tour, and the reception that I got, I definitely knew that it was a place that I wanted to keep coming back to, because it was such a warm welcoming reception that I got, every night of the tour. So, yeah, from that point on, it was all systems go! I booked myself a really small tour, as a headliner, a couple of months later, coming back to many of the places that we had hit on the Ford tour, and you know, the crowds were small – twenty or thirty people, but they all came out solely because they had seen me play with David, so that was a huge thing for me and it was a great foothold to get into the UK and start building something. It’s been really exciting to continue to come over, to keep building relationships with fans. It’s been a lot of fun. PB: I’ve been to see you play, I would think, on most of the tours you have done. It does feel like you started off with David Ford’s audience, and then gradually you’ve built up more and more of your own fanbase every time. JD: Yeah… it’s been nice to see it actually work the way that it’s supposed to work. You’ll hear that what you should do is go and you play, and the next time you might have five more fans and then the next time you’ll have ten more fans. And, a lot of time that’s not how it works out. But, for me in the UK, that’s exactly how it’s worked out. For whatever reason, people have kept coming back and they seem to be a pretty knowledgeable, dedicated fanbase. So, I am pretty fortunate to have found that. PB: You mentioned that the album was recorded quite a while back – it probably feels like an old album to you now, but we are just hearing it new – but tell me a bit about the recording and the people that you worked with on the album. JD: Well, Ford seems to have his fingerprints over a lot of what has happened to me in the last few years. This record is certainly one of them. He’s very good mates with a guy named David Lynch – not the one you are thinking of, another David Lynch! – who runs a really nice studio in Eastbourne, where David is from. So, he had just gotten in this old Atari Two Inch tape machine, and we were going to be over for Glastonbury, actually, in 2015 and had a few days planned where we were going to hang out in Eastbourne afterwards, so he said, “Hey, why don’t you come in and we’ll do a little session on tape?” So, that sounded amazing to me, because I’d never gotten to work on tape – most of things I had done were using Pro Tools, so we just thought it would be fun. We went in one afternoon and cut three songs. I didn’t really have any thought about what it would become, I just thought it would be fun and we were getting a mate’s rate. But, we recorded ‘Faint of Heart’, ‘Way Past Midnight’ and ‘In the Meantime’, which I thought sounded amazing. I was so pleased with how it turned out, so knowing that we were going to be back in the UK in November to support the Waterboys, so I booked four days in the studio right after the end of the tour to cut the rest of the record. We did it all live – guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and me – and then we went back and overdubbed the backing vocals and horns and all that. But what you hear is really what happened in the room at that time. It was like playing a gig. With recording that way, I feel you can capture a bit more of that honest energy by doing it that way. It’s a performance – like a gig. It’s that bit more dangerous because there is less room for error. So, it was a great experience – and now, I wouldn’t want to record any other way, to be honest. PB: Do you think that will be how you record your next records? JD: Absolutely. Even with ‘The Lonesome Traveller’, we had recorded it in a similar way – me, with a band, all playing together live. But it was all on pro tools, so – even though we didn’t really use it – you always knew you had that safety net. Not having that is a really nice thing, because sometimes that safety net is a crutch, and when you work without it, it forces you to take quicker decisions, to commit to arrangements and takes, and in some ways it makes you push a bit harder when you are doing it, because you knew you had to make it count. PB: Were the songs on the record ones you had already tested by playing them live – were the arrangements already sorted out? JD: It was about half and half. Some we had been playing live, and then there were another half that we worked out in the studio on the spot. So it was a mixed bag on that front. PB: There were two tracks that you have resurrected and rearranged from earlier releases – most notably, ‘California’, which you have also put out to radio in advance of the album’s release. What made you want to record that one again, in particular? JD: That one becoming a single was a surprise as that was never the idea behind it. That was a song that was on my very first record, which has thankfully kind of disappeared from the internet… PB: Ha! I’ve got one… but, don’t worry, I won’t put it up again. JD: Keep it to yourself! But that song is really the only song from that record that I still play. When we first recorded it, I had only just written it, I think about a week earlier, so I had never played it live. And so, it kind of evolved pretty quickly after I started playing it in front of people. But it was a song that, pretty much every gig, someone would come up and ask about it – so I thought that well maybe I would resurrect it and give it a day in the sun, on this album. I didn’t ever expect it become a single because, you know, it’s a slow ballad and on the album. It’s over five minutes long, which doesn’t exactly spell radio gold. But, for whatever reason, that’s the one that they wanted to go with as the first taste of the record. PB: Once the record is out, you are then back in the UK for a tour in October. Some of the people reading this may have seen you on the tour you did in March, so can we expect anything different this time? JD: Since we had been over in March, we wanted to make this one a little bit different. I do think that it will be a lot of the same people coming out – hopefully a few new people as well, of course. So, this one is going to be a bit more stripped down – it will be myself and my wife Claire, and then keyboards. There may be a few surprises in there as well, hopefully a few guests and unexpected songs, but it will be quite different to the full band tour that we did before. PB: And what about after the tour – is it too early to be thinking about another album? JD: No, definitely not. I’ve been writing – really writing seriously – for the last twelve months now. And, we are not far off from having enough for another record. I don’t know when that will be, but that is certainly where my head is at. Obviously, I’m excited to be at the point of being able to get this one out and share it with people. But, you know, if you are not thinking ahead, then when what are you doing? So I’m very much thinking about getting back in the studio and doing another one. It’s a bit too early to say exactly when that will happen – mainly because, for the first time in my career, it’s not entirely my decision. We’ll just have to wait and see. But I imagine there will be a lot of touring over the next year – at least, I hope there is, because I very much enjoy it. PB: Will any of those new songs be popping up in the live set at this point, or will you be sticking to the ones we know? JD: Yeah, we’ve been kicking around ideas and I’m sure one or two will start appearing in the set. Obviously, as this is a tour about ‘Ready The Horses’, we will be leaning heavily on that, but I think a few more will sneak in there. PB: Are you contemplating branching out in terms of styles? ‘Ready The Horses’ has seen you bring in some soul influences on top of the folk, country sound, so will there be more exploration of those sounds? JD: Yeah, I’m always looking to do that. ‘The Lonesome Traveller’ was mainly a folk album, very acoustic driven. Then, ‘Ready The Horses’ has some of that, but it is a bit more rocking and dirty in places, and I think the next album will go a bit further down that path – looking at 50's R&B and rock ‘n’ roll. I’ll be going down some of those classic routes and those sounds. But the storytelling part is always going to be there. As a songwriter, that’s what I get excited about – telling a story. Finding new sounds, feels, grooves to put behind the story is a lot of fun, but it’s the story that is the main event. PB: As well as touring and playing your own headline gigs, you have done quite a wide array of touring as a support act – and with a quite a diverse range of people. I’d imagine playing with Jools Holland is quite different to, say, the White Buffalo who you mentioned earlier. Is that something you still want to do, or will the focus be headline shows? JD: No, no, I am more than happy to do more of those kind of shows. It’s a blast – I love getting to go and play these beautiful rooms to big crowds, and doing it before some legendary people. I’ve got to open up for Bonnie Raitt, which was a real thrill, and Don Maclean and the Waterboys, and Jools of course. It’s a lot of fun – but from a career perspective, you certainly gain a lot of fans from it. So, I’ll definitely be looking to do more support tours in the next few months. PB: So, the obvious question then would be, in a dream scenario, who would you want to support? JD: Well, if we are shooting for the stars, then let’s say Sir Paul McCartney, Tom Waits, or Dylan. Those would be the top three. But, I’ll take what I am given! PB: If you are looking ahead, perhaps to the end of your music career, are there any big ambitions that you would want to have achieved? JD: Well, for the most part, for me the biggest achievement would just be to keep going. It’s not an easy career path or industry to stay in – don’t get me wrong, almost every job day to day is harder than singing songs. But, I think to be able to keep doing this for ten, twenty, thirty years would be a huge achievement. I hope I’m able to do it – I certainly have no plans of giving it up. But then other goals would be around playing my own gigs at the great venues, perhaps a Carnegie Hall or the Royal Albert Hall. That would be unbelievable. But what I work towards is trying to make each new song better than the last one, each record better than the last one. Then, if I can do that, I’m happy to see where it takes me. PB: So, final question, if you had someone come up to you and you had thirty seconds to persuade them to buy the new album, what would you say as your pitch? JD: Ha ha… well, if I had thirty seconds, I would say, “Check this record out, because it is sure to be piece of rock and roll history in the years to come!” That’s my very humble pitch… But, more seriously, another pitch would be that if you like songs and stories, and tunes that get you excited, then I think this record will be for you. It’s got a lot of those things going for it, and hopefully a little bit there for everyone. I hope people latch on to it, because it was a blast for me to make, and I’m really looking forward to it being out there. PB: Thank you.
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