The dream of most every musician who has severed all ties to the civilian day job world and made that scarey plunge of becoming a professional artist is to eventually be discovered by someone who can help them make their dream into at least a stable, sustainable reality. The fairy-tale story of some unsigned, but unquestionably deserving artist getting discovered at a random show rarely comes true, but it did for Austin Lucas last year at Cactus Records in Houston, TX. Austin has just released his debut album Stay Reckless on the prestigious New West Records and has now become yet another example of a deserving independent roots artists finally finding success in 2013.
Below is a discussion with Austin about how he was discovered by New West, the influences and style that go into Austin’s unique blend of music, and an in-depth discussion about how the narrowing of musical perspectives is adversely affecting independent music in the current musical paradigm.
Trigger: You’ve been working at this thing for a long time, and you’re now singed to New West Records and are label mates with folks like Patty Griffin and Steve Earle. How did the relationship come about with New West?
Austin Lucas: It’s really interesting. They turned me down for my last two records. I thought that New West Records was completely out of my possibility. They’ve been a dream label of mine for a long time. Somebody told George Fontaine, the President of New West, that he should check me out. So he went down to Cactus Records in Houston, TX—I was playing there with Glossary—and he bought like $100 worth of merchandise off of me, and we talked for about 45 minutes after that about music. Then Joey from Glossary came up to me afterwards and said, “Hey, what were you talking to George from New West about for so long?” And I said, “Excuse me?” And he said, “That was George Fontaine, the President of New West Records.” And I was like, “What the fuck? No way.” I’m glad that I didn’t know because if I had known, I would’ve botched it. From there, I got his email address, and after sending him some demos I worked on with Glossary he said, “We’ve got to talk on the phone. You’ve really got something here.”
You’re from southern Indiana, and Stay Reckless has a song on it called “Small Town Heart” that speaks pretty intimately about your home. How much does where you come from play into your music, and who you are as a person?
I mean, everything. It encompasses all aspects of my character. I’m a firm believer that you should never stop growing. But the first 18 years of your life I think are the most instrumental, and I spent most of those first 18 years in Indiana. It was crucial, without a doubt.
You live in Nashville now, which has become a wellspring for up-and-coming, independent roots talent. Being right there, do you feel like something special is going on in Nashville right now?
I’m not there as much as other folks are. I do live there, and I spend as much time there as I can. I went to The 5 Spot the other day, and they were having this country music thing. I went there two weeks in a row, and the first week Jason Isbell sat in and sang Tom T. Hall, and the next week I saw Caitlin Rose and Robert Ellis. And you got guys from Johny Corndawg’s band, all these east Nashville staples hanging out, just like pals playing all of these old classic country songs. There’s not a lot of places in the world where you can get that kind of experience. You ask me if it’s something new and special, and as a member of this generation, I’d like to think it is, but in a lot of ways I feel like an extension of what’s always been going on. If you want to know the truth and the real beauty of that, it’s so comforting to know that’s still going on.
The Austin Lucas sound is sort of a tale of two styles—a folk and country sound, and then more of an over-driven rock sound. Are these two approaches to satiate certain parts of your musical yearning, or is the experience more seamless for you?
It’s more seamless. I have a lot of influences, and basically whatever I’m listening to the most of at the time ends up being reflected in my records. I think that’s the way it is for people who don’t just try to satisfy their fans by making the same record over and over. Singer/songwriters have more freedom, especially compared to folks in a band because we’re able to write the kind of songs were feeling in any given day. Some of my records, it’s pretty obvious I was listening to a lot of bluegrass and old time music, and over the last few years I’ve been listen to a lot of classic rock and country. And it shows. I have every intention of growing and doing different things. I always want what I’m doing to be something interesting to me.
Singing seems to be such a seminal part of your music. In nearly every one of your songs, there’s at least some female harmonies. Where does the passion for harmonies come from, and specifically using female harmonies as a standard of your music?
I grew up singing with my sister. It always sounds most natural. In fact on most of my records it is my sister. This record is the first one that didn’t sing with my sister on it, I used Kelly from Glossary. It sounds right for me to have a female backing me because I have my whole life. I really love to contrast between a male and a female voice.
What would you say is the message of Stay Reckless? That may seem like a redundant question because of the title of the record. But what does that mean to you?
The title comes from a couple of places. You know I’d just gotten divorced, or I was getting divorced. And a buddy of mine started texting me at 4 in the morning. Luckily I was awake, which I’m not always at that time. He was drunk and I’d had a few. We were just texting back and forth and at the end he was like, “Well fuck yeah brother I’m going to bed. Stay reckless.” And I was immediately like, “Dude, can I please use that for my next record?” I immediately knew I had the title. As soon as he said it, I said, “That’s the name of my next record.” And then there’s the other part, because I wrote the song “Stay Reckless” about my brother. He has a saying, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” I just re-entered the world of being single, and I was partying a lot. And it just really spoke to me, those two words put together. It was one of the best text messages I ever got, especially as a sign off. And the overarching theme of the record is really that. It is coming to terms with getting a divorce and being single again, and figuring out my limits.
What would you say to people who say that artists not for the traditional South can’t sing country music, or maybe can’t include Southern inflections in their voice?
I would say that those people probably haven’t traveled very much, especially in the rural areas of any various fucking state. There are people who live in the country who generally have what is considered to be Southern inflections in their voices no matter what. I personally believe that that stuff is American music, and every American has the right to sing however the fuck that they feel like singing. And to be honest with you, I don’t give a fuck what those people say. The fact that anybody would say that is just fucking nit picking, isn’t it? It’s pretentious utter fucking hipster shit to try and place any kind of assumption on what kind of upbringing a person had, or what way they can talk and sing. I truthfully believe that everybody, especially in the music world, is constantly searching for reasons to pick apart or celebrate something. I love when people love me, but if people don’t love me all the time, it may hurt a little bit, but the truth is that it’s not going to stop me doing what I do. I’m just doing what I love to do with the best of my abilities and the skill set that I have.
To me, a lot of people have really subjective tastes, and they listen to one or two things, and then they enter into the music world thinking that they have a really large understanding of music and they don’t. People’s focus has gotten so much more narrower because there’s so much more inside specific genres that you can spend your entire life in one genre, and never listen to every band that put out a record in that genre. Whereas before, the amount of records being put out, people had to seek out different styles of music. They only had a few records of any particular genre at their fingertips at any given moment. Now it’s limitless. And you would think or hope that that would mean folks were listening to a lot of different kinds of music. But unfortunately what that really means is that people are able to listen to one kind of music and only be interested in that one kind of music, and become specialized and not understand a broader picture of musical history, or an artist like me who has thousands of different influences, and so many different styles that I love.
To me,when you listen to one kind of music, and especially when you nitpick even inside of that kind of music, it is the worst kind of hipster shit. And a lot of people reading this might think to themselves, “I’m not a hipster.” Fuck you, you are. If you are part of any type of subculture, everyone else is looking at you and saying you’re a hipster. I just happen to be the kind of motherfucker that likes a lot of different shit, and if you don’t like my music because there’s certain influences, then that’s fine. But you have to understand that I understand why that is. And I think that’s the reason it both pisses me off, and I also accept it at the same time.
Going back to what you said about people finding reasons to either love or hate music, it’s funny because the most polarizing thing I do is when I don’t just tear apart someone’s music, or I don’t say great things about it. The two most polarizing individuals I write about are Jamey Johnson and Shooter Jennings, and it’s not because I criticize them, but because I see it both ways. And people can’t deal with that. If you say something really negative they can say, “Well screw that guy.” Or if you say something positive, they say, “Yes, you affirmed my opinions,” and they give you props. But when you say, “Hey, this is somewhere in the middle,” people just get angry.
And yeah, the glut of so much music and the availability to that music has caused it to be where if you try to branch out and broaden your perspective it can give you music crazy head, so people are downgrading to these micro-genres, and it’s very exclusive. They get a lot of identity though music, it helps them identify with who they are and how they dress, who they socialize with, especially online, and it causes a narrowing of perspective. Everything I do is an attempt to broaden people’s perspective because I think one of the biggest issues we have in independent music right now is this narrowing of perspective. Because some fans are so immersed and sold on the music they like, and identifying themselves and their personalities through that music, you could bring them they best music they would have every heard in their life, but they’re not going to give it a chance because its not in a certain scene.
I hope you print everything you just said right there. I couldn’t agree with you more. I think many fans would be surprised how well artists are connected to each other. For example, I don’t think people would associate me with Possessed by Paul James, but he’s a dear friend of mine. We call each other up for advice all the time, and to celebrate each other’s victories. And that’s just one example. Everyone who hears a piece of music, hears it differently than everyone else. When you get into these microcosms where people are talking about how they feel about things, and everyone’s reading these different opinions, you start to form group opinions where everyone is thinking and saying the same thing about something. People should be celebrated for wanting to do something different, but generally speaking, they’re not. And I think that’s sad.