Let’s start with the new album. I know you’ve worked a lot with your bassist, Jay Brown, and with Tucker as producer on the last album, but where did the other guys – your “dream cast of musicians” – come in?
Yeah. Jay was certainly important because he’s been my creative partner and support system for many years. And I’m really lucky to have had Eric Heywood playing with me for a couple of years now too. He’s a musician with tremendous guts so it was really important to have him there. John Convertino from Calexico is actually an old friend of Eric’s, and is also someone that came to mind for Tucker. I love his tone; it’s like his pocket is so deep, and his sense of space and feel is so amazing. And, of course, Mark Ribot is absolutely, by far and away, my favourite guitar player. He’s incredible. So it was really a dream to have him there.
I feel like everyone who is on this record is kind of a minimalist, and also capable of playing with such tenderness and guts. Everyone contributed so much, and was so caring and heartfelt. It was really a family affair, a special time. And I love Tucker, so working with him was something that I absolutely wanted to do again.
And of course, Andrew Bird guests on ‘Drifted Apart’. I see you’ve toured together and that he’s also been on your radio show, The Spark. What made you decide to record a song together?
We sang together once and when I heard that, when I heard us singing together, I thought, ‘Oh, goodness, that’s a lovely noise’. So I begged him to come in to the studio and he was kind enough to agree.
If you don’t mind me asking, what happened to make you leave Fantasy Records?
My contract was up. We had a lovely, lovely time, but my contract was up and other options were there to be explored. I definitely wanted to make this record on my own so that’s what I did, and that was a real gift. I just felt like it was a really important moment in my career for me to have no other voices in the room but my own. It’s not that I didn’t want to work with a label when thinking about how to release these songs into the world, but I didn’t want people that I didn’t know having input.
That reminds me of when you were writing Another Country and you really wanted to make a record that was honest and personal. Was this a similar situation?
Well, I certainly wrote Another Country in a space that was very physically removed from my normal life but, with Traveling Alone, it was a very particular moment, a unique moment. There was a label [Fantasy Records] involved in funding Another Country from an early stage so this situation was different.
Okay. So, Yep Roc picked up the album after it was complete or almost complete?
They picked it up and they really liked how it came out. They have known me for a long time and were very supportive of my need for creative independence. So that was really wonderful.
I read that, when you were writing the album you would wake up and walk down the block to the City Winery to play the piano there?
Yes! They have a really lovely grand piano there so I would just get up, get a cup a coffee and go practise for an hour before it opened. It was a really lovely way to start the writing day. And I think it made my neighbours happy that I wasn’t doing that in my house…
Do you still write on piano first and then transfer some to guitar later?
There’s no rule really. I mean, they do different things in your hands and bring out different qualities. So I just follow whatever comes. I think I’ve been writing a lot more on guitar lately, but when I’m really working on a song intensively I’ll often be trading back and forth on the piano and the guitar.
I noticed that you posted a photo of your ‘writing board’ for the album on Instagram – do you make one of those for every record?
Well, I always have some kind of visual. I have a board at my writing desk at home that I am constantly pinning inspiration to. When a project starts there’s not very much on it, but by the end I have to take it all down and read through it. It’s just a habit that I’ve started over the years, to keep myself on a certain map. Also, I just love collages. I guess it’s sort of my big mental collage.
I remember in the press materials for See You On The Moon you wrote about having had a day of wearing rollerskates in the studio. Any similar antics this time around?
Well, we were only in the studio for eight days to make this record so there was no time to rollerskate. It was a very focused session. And, actually, another thing I love so much about this group of people is that they were able to very easily move into intensity and then back out, back to our very laidback kind of friendship. I think, as a group, it’s a real gift to be able to shift between those two mindsets so effortlessly.
Listening to Traveling Alone it seems to me that the songs are maybe expressing a slight unease about growing older. Is that the case, or are you feeling more comfortable with age and experiences?
That’s interesting. I think there is a different kind of weight to your life as you get older. For me personally, I’ve come to realise that it’s all on the line, all of the time. I do think that gravity is present in this record. But, you know, I tend to like seriousness much more than I like flippancy, so I am comfortable with that. But I am surprised that time has gone so quickly.
When you say ‘a different kind of weight’, I guess a part of that is coming to terms with the loss of family members and friends who have passed on. I know those experiences partly informed See You On The Moon – have they also informed this new album?
I would say that Traveling Alone is much more about life [laughs]. I did write ‘Too Soon To Go’ for my father, but I think this is a little bit more of a solitary, internal record.
I’m excited to hear your upcoming collaboration with Simone Dinnerstein. I read somewhere that it was her aim with the project to “expose the ties that bind the music of Elizabethan England and rural 20th Century America”, which sounds fascinating…
I think it’s a little more personal than that. I think the record is an exploration of what ties our musicianship together, and our musical friendship. We followed this song cycle of really surprising juxtapositions, and in that we actually found a lot in common. It was really the beauty of the music, or the feeling in the music, that helped us to tie it together – to tie something like ‘Dido & Aeneas’ to Billie Holiday. And I think that funnelling those influences through our own selves made it true. It did surprise us though. We had no idea if this was going to work but it was a really wonderful process in the end.
We spent a long time working together on this, to really come up with something that is true to both of us. On my side, I don’t know very much at all about classical music, nor do I really read music – certainly not on the level that Simone does. On her side, she doesn’t play music the way that I do, by ear or by feel. I feel like I learned an enormous amount from working with Simone, and I have such admiration for her as a musician.
2012 marks ten years since your debut album, Bramble Rose, came out. Can you still remember how you felt on the day your first album first went into the shops?
Yes, I do. I remember all of it, everything. I’ve always been a bit superstitious so I don’t tend to celebrate the beginning of things, but that was a really special time.
Do you feel like, as the years have gone by, you still get just as excited when you release a new album?
You know, I can’t help but think that I was something of a child ten years ago. And I’m sure that ten years from now I’ll look back on myself and think what a child I was now. I think, from the outside perspective, it’s easy to frame my life from records to record. And I’m not sure that that’s exactly what I do inside my life. I think about music, but I think about a lot of other things too. I think it’s really important to not build your life album release by album release.
Of course. I mean, you do so many other things! I saw on Twitter that you recently visited rural Alaska, completing the full set of fifty states. How was it exploring where your great grandparents used to live?
It definitely gave me a new admiration for them. I mean, they were there in the early 1900s and it was a very rough existence. But they were very tough people and they really loved it there. I admire that pioneer spirit.
But you’re not tempted to pack up and move to Alaska any time soon?
No, I tend to do my pioneering on the inside!
Going back to the last time we interviewed you, in 2009, you were very excited about Obama being elected as President. A few years down the line, have your views on the state of American politics changed?
Let’s see. How do I answer that? [long pause] I am a big fan of Václav Havel, the late [and last] president of Czechoslovakia. His writing really sums up my point of view on politics, which is that if you separate ethics from leadership you’re really in a tight spot. I really loved that a poet and a playwright was a president of a country. So my point, I would say, is to read Václav Havel [laughs].
Also in that interview you talked a bit about how difficult you find touring sometimes. Are you enjoying it more these days?
You know, like anything else, you kind of get better with practice and you grow accustomed to it. I really love the people that I play music with, so I feel lucky to be travelling with them and spending time with them. I try to bring my father every once in a while, or some of my friends. But it’s a very different kind of life, and I can’t say that I don’t long to stay home and have a routine. To be something of a hermit writer. But I can’t stop being a musician just because I have to travel 400 miles today, you know?
Is there a big difference touring in a van with someone like Mary Chapin Carpenter compared to, say, when you were touring with Teddy Thompson?
Well, I will say that touring with Teddy Thompson and touring with Mary Chapin Carpenter are two very different experiences [laughs]. Teddy taught me a lot of dirty words, whereas Chapin has a crew and a big family around her that has really taken me in. She’s really taken me under her wing. You know, it’s always a privilege to be able to spend time with talented people.
It’s great that you come over to the UK so regularly. You must really like us!
[laughs] Of course I do. And I finally get a decent cup of tea!
A few tickets remain for tonight’s show at the Assembly Hall – get ‘em here. Additional UK dates as follows:
23.11.12 The Bullingdon Arms, Oxford
25.11.12 The Ruby Lounge, Manchester
26.11.12 Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh
28.11.12 The Cluny, Newcastle