Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Music Feature—Issue 40, April 2014)

Patrick Culliton
Chasing the Song: A Conversation with Jerry David DeCicca

Jerry David DeCicca
29th of June

I first saw The Black Swans when I was in college. Their music reminded me of that I had been discovering since high school—dark, acoustic, “weird,” to borrow from Greil Marcus’ The Old, Weird America. It was exciting for me to see that this style of music was still alive and finding new ways to sing. Jerry continued to write and record music with The Black Swans until 2012. He has also produced albums by Ed Askew, Bob Martin, and Larry Jon Wilson, bringing their gifts to new and established audiences alike.

Jerry is set to self-release his first solo album, Understanding Land, on May 13th. It’s a beautiful, haunting document. Moving from an existing band to a solo project, for one who’s never done it, appears daunting, yet Jerry makes the transition seamlessly, as he has all along, shifting between roles and projects in service of what he refers to as “chasing the song.” And while this is a solo release, Jerry isn’t alone. Contributions from Spooner Oldham, Kelley Deal, Will Oldham, and many others help bring the album to life. Jerry has offered an exclusive stream of the song “29th of June” from Understanding Land.

I’m fortunate to know Jerry from those years back, where I came to learn we both studied English and shared a mentor in the poet Kathy Fagan. I moved away from Columbus, eventually landing in Chicago. Jerry and I lost touch for a while there, but I always remembered him and kept tabs on what he was up to musically. Given music’s way of connecting people, it came as no surprise to me when Bob Dylan played in Chicago on Halloween of 2009 and I had to take a leak around the fourth song. How else, among that Aragon Ballroom throng, would I have run into Jerry, who raced into the john, having just driven the six hours of highway between Ohio and Illinois, giving us just enough of a chance to reconnect as the band thundered along above us?

PC:Let’s start with the obligatory geographical question. You recently left Columbus, Ohio for New Braunfels, Texas. What brought about the move? How, if at all, does living in this new place affect the way you write/think about/consider music?

JDD:The short answer is that it was the first chunk of time in a long while when I’ve had no commitments—no upcoming Black Swans record, tour or production work. I moved around a bit after college, but since I began making records, touring has been my vehicle for travel and new experiences. Too, my girlfriend wanted to escape Ohio winters. We sort of stumbled onto New Braunfels, and couldn’t be happier here. It’s beautiful, close to the Comal and Guadalupe Rivers, quiet, as affordable as most places these days, close to Austin and San Antonio, full of a music history that I’ve always loved. If the song is true that it “takes a worried man to sing a worried song,” and I believe that it is, at least a good worried song, then Texas, with its clear skies, open land, and all that comes with it, will determine my sound and language in the future. I live somewhere with way less environmental noise, I’m close to water, I’m far away from close friends and family, everyone in this town knows the name Doug Sahm. Having a Texas driver’s license doesn’t mean I’m going to start making shit-kicker country rock or wear a ten gallon hat, but my environment, and all that means, affects my mind and use of time. Since the move, no songs in a minor key have reared their dark and depressive head, so something’s happening here.

PC:I wonder, too, about your thoughts on geography/regionalism as it relates to music in 2013. It is often said that, in this hyper-”connected”/globalized time, regional identity in American music is dead. Do you believe this? Texas is certainly a defined musical region, more well-known, perhaps, to the greater culture than, say, Columbus, OH, which we both know and love.

JDD:I think regionalism is still a big character, at least in non-mainstream music, whether you’re talking about a rapper or a folk singer. In Ohio, you hear the difference between bands from different ends of the state. I hear dozens of specific bands in my head when I think of the northwest, the northeast, the southeast, the south, west coast, Texas—all very distinct and not self-conscious. The Midwest will always suffer from something of an identity crisis— its culture and land being less romantic and subtle (if you consider gray and flat to be subtle). When you start including mainstream music or, maybe more so, musicians with mainstream aspirations in this conversation, you can throw everything I just said out the window. Then it does all sound the same. That world is its own region called Corporate Culture and unfortunately it is so loud and dominant that it keeps a lot of music lovers at bay from new and interesting voices.

PC:Why, as your website states, was it “time to step out alone” and record a solo album away from the Black Swans?

JDD:Geeez, well, that makes it sound rather dramatic, doesn’t it? Maybe I need to change that. The Black Swans was a band I started with Noel Sayre, and when he passed away and we lost that other dominant voice of his violin, it felt like a different band musically—not bad, just very different. Our last record, Occasion for Song, was about dealing with his death. If I was ever going to start making solo records and begin using my name, this seemed like the right time to do it. I felt a sense of finality with the last record, personally and thematically. The guys in the band are still my brothers, some of my best friends, and they all helped me with my solo record.

PC:How was the experience of recording this album different than working on a Black Swans album? Perhaps geography will rear its head again, as the album was written in Elephant & Castle in London.

JDD:It was written in another country and in the winter after a long stretch of touring. The songs were based on notes I had taken in my songwriting notebooks over the last several years. The first song, “Before the Storm,” begins from a lyric note I took while hiking almost 3 years earlier. I wrote all ten songs in one month with no other musicians in mind to play on it, which is the first time I can say that in over 15 years, and it really freed me up. I had little idea what other instruments or players I’d have available to me. I also recorded the song, guitar and vocal, one day after writing it. Usually, it might be months or a year between finishing a song and recording it. With these songs, I began sending them out via email to friends and friends of friends. Pretty quickly, I ended up with a great little record with some of my favorite musicians.  There were no rehearsals, very little talking about parts, no live recordings. The Black Swans records are, more often than not, live documents of a group of friends. I’ve still never met some of the players on this record.

PC:This album, as on your past albums, has a cohesive feeling and sound, yet there is such variation in the instrumental lineup from track to track that brings it to haunted life. Let’s stick with Understanding Land: when did you know what sounds/instruments should appear on each song? Do you hear them while composing?

JDD:Since it was a solo record, I knew I wanted my acoustic guitar more present and clear so I could represent the songs alone or with minimal accompaniment. Spooner Oldham, who plays Wurlitzer on 3 songs, has been one of my favorite musicians for most of my life. I love his work with people like Dylan, Neil Young, Arlo Guthrie, and Aretha Franklin. It really was a dream come true to hear him on my songs. Ryan Jewell added tabla, Sven Kahns played lap steel and pedal steel. Those are all instruments I haven’t heard on my records before. I didn’t hear those instruments while composing, but I knew I wanted to distinguish this record from The Black Swans and having unfamiliar voices was an easy way to do that while also satisfying my ears. There are very few solo acoustic albums I find satisfying and complete in their skeleton, despite how many I own. The guitar and voice is frame. The artistic choices you make once that frame is built is what defines the work.

PC:The first three songs, which you, funnily, refer to as the “Weather Trilogy,” use weather as “metaphor for the plus and minuses of change.” Were you as conscious of theme on this album, Understanding Land, when it came to writing the lyrics, as you were on Occasion for Song, for instance, whose songs were written as a way to deal with the monumental loss of Noel? Did you give the album its title after all of the songs were written? Before? How did you land on that title?

JDD:I don’t usually write to a theme until I’m a few songs into what I know will be an album. Then, I’m connecting dots—filling in the gaps, connecting songs to one another, trying not to be redundant but also echo ideas. These songs were informed by both my traveling and my stillness. I wanted the record to sound more rural without falling into those clichés that are easy choices. I was heavily influenced by the mood of other records, like Bob Carpenter’s Silent Passage, Steve Young’s Seven Bridges Road, and Tim Hardin’s Bird on a Wire, more than their songs or playing or singing. The title, Understanding Land, I’ve had kicking around for a while. It was actually the title to a book of poems I wrote ten years ago (which no one has or will ever see) and then became the name of my publishing company. For these songs and my first solo record, it felt appropriate.

PC:Above, I describe this record as “haunted.” Much of that for me comes from the slide work that cuts through what I think you mean by the “rural” sound of the album. This, for example, on “29th of June,” amplifies the darkness of the lyric. How would you describe the mood of this record, given that moods of other records influenced you?

JDD:The lap and pedal steel are instruments that have this duality: both balance controlled sustain with this sense of the wilderness. It can be a wily sound. That is rural in many ways and compliments my lyrics and voice, which also teeter on those two worlds. This is another thing lyrics and poems share: songwriters choose rhyme the way some poets choose form. It gives order and control to all these big ideas. It makes the unhinged drama and chaos digestible. Take a songwriter that doesn’t use rhyme, like the great Mark Eitzel. Mark has that gorgeous, huge voice so he doesn’t need rhyme as much. I’m not sure people would be able to absorb how brilliant he is if not for that operatic vehicle to smooth out the demons. What’s the poetic analogy for that in free verse—line breaks? Internal rhyme? When Sven Kahns plays the steel, he’s punctuating that connection in my songs. The album’s mood is one of transition. This isn’t a color you can paint your dining room with, but it is the sound of the string section (pretty, angry, playful), Andy Hamill plucking hairs from his double bass bow and tying them around his finger to make that high lonesome gypsy sound, Mittens, the budgie, chirping in the background, and my voice and words. I wanted to make a record that is pretty, but also slightly dangerous in its emotions.

PC:I’ve always been curious about how musicians/songwriters sequence their albums. Can you speak to that a bit? How did this album find its track order? How important is that part of the process to you?

JDD:People say that no one listens to albums any more, just “tracks.” But I don’t. I still buy vinyl records and listen from beginning to end. I still want albums to be an experience, a trip—you go from here to there. I love and value that model that came out of the late 60s. I make dozens of CDRs and play around with song order till it feels right to me. This time I got lucky: some of the most immediate songs belonged early on. In the past, like with The Black Swans albums Don’t Blame the Stars and Change!, I used first songs as an introduction that was uncharacteristic of the rest of the album. It was artistically the best move, but now that people preview albums and click away if something isn’t immediate, that hurt sales. On Understanding Land, I wrote “Bloom Again” to be the closer. It’s about a beginning, but it ends the record. To me, records have a narrative like books and movies. They’re not video games.

PC:I notice, near the end of the record, including “Bloom Again,” the lyrics often mention animals hiding and this often occurs in tandem with a realization or declaration by the songs’ narrator that he wishes he could do the same but can’t (“In the morning my mind feels free/As I watch a fox hide under a tree/But later on as the day does progress/The sounds of the world make my head a mess” and “All the critters in the ground/Know what I’m talking about/They’ve got somewhere to hide/Till the gettin’s good”, for example). Given that records have a narrative, would you say the arc for the narrator of these songs is a wish to escape his humanness? I can’t help thinking, too, that nothing understands land as well as an animal.

JDD:Thanks for mentioning the urban fox in “First and Last” and the song “Bloom Again.” Watching animals is very satisfying, isn’t it? So long as it isn’t a nature film of elephants being attacked by lions or something like that, I find myself rooting for them and empathizing. Like, “Hell yes, squirrel, get that nut up the tree!” or “Clean yourself real good, you dirty bird!” They’re doing their best in a world that sets you up to fail. Do you know the songs “High Hopes” by Sinatra or “Rabbit” by Ray Wylie Hubbard? Those are motivational songs! There’s something peaceful about watching a creature so instinct driven, when we’re so clouded by emotions and big, obnoxious brains that can’t turn off. These are small and simple joys we can take and learn from the critter world. “Bloom Again” is very much a tiny tale that arcs from hibernation to a new beginning. It was inspired by a Roy Orbison interview I remembered seeing in 8th grade where he talks about his career rebirth and how he stood like a tree waiting to bloom again. I turned this idea on its side a little for my song and made it more about an interior journey. I stole a piece of his chat and added music that is part blues, part nursery rhyme, part dissonant. So I don’t think the narrator is trying to “escape his humanness,” but he is looking outward to learn how to find it.

PC:You studied Creative Writing/English at The Ohio State University. Were you writing songs then? Before then? Either way, how did your studies inform your songwriting?

JDD:I did my homework, but I wasn’t a great student. I did get a lot out of school and studying literature and from creative writing workshops. And I did write songs then. I started writing songs at 15 as soon as I learned 3 chords, in the exact style I play now. The art-y, folk-y, singer-songwriter thing—that’s always been who I wanted to be.  I was never comfortable with the idea of jumping up and down, despite how much I love rock-n-roll. Now, one of the benefits of releasing records and performing for so long is that I’ve been humiliated so many times that I can tell you this next story without triggering old traumas: by the time I was 18, in college, I wrote this long, arpeggio-drenched song in the key of C called “Camus.” Like, I just read The Stranger and then I wrote this song called “Camus” because I loved this songwriter named Elliott Murphy who is overly literary and he had this song called “Just Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Blues.” I felt like he made it okay for the rest of us, right? So, I went to my first open mic at a campus bar, and it’s loud and covered in frat boys singing songs by the Spin Doctors and Pearl Jam and there are all these TVs with sports muted and I’m terrified. I go up there and start playing my newest masterpiece called “Camus”—no chorus, every word matters, slowly finger-picked like Paul Simon with lobster claws—and over the loudspeaker, twice my volume, you hear someone call out, “Jason, your wings are ready. Jason, your wings are ready.” I felt awful, immediately sick to my stomach. And it got worse because Jason either went home or lost his appetite or maybe he was transfixed by the freak with the guitar on stage because it went on and on for the rest of my song — “Jason, your wings are ready.” I knew then that being influenced by literature and playing in bars was going to be tough. So I’ve definitely applied my education to my craft, even early on. Of course, the real influence of poetry on my music may be that I know that there are not a lot of people are listening and yet I continue to do it because I believe in its value, I know language matters, and I believe in the plurality of voices and documenting the nuances of human experiences in song. That’s the spirit of a poet. If I wasn’t influenced by poetry and literature, I’d be selling a lot more records, which despite what you read is easy to do: just ape what sells.

PC:You are twenty-some years on from that first performance and, trusting as you do in your art, how do you come to performing live now? I’m sure you are more confident than you were at 18, and you allude to other humiliating experiences, so your skin must be thicker, but what is it like for you, now, to take these songs on the road?

JDD:We live in a loud world and most venues are not listening rooms. It was good for me to learn that early on. If you’re not tough, then you probably need to keep your creative endeavors, no matter how brilliant, more private. Rejection and rudeness and insensitivity come with the territory of sharing personal expression. I’m still not sure why I stuck it out. I love to travel, the unknown, the adventure, and I remain, mostly, restless. I could go more in depth, but I’ll refrain from repeating the usual sentiments musicians express about touring in the U.S versus Europe. Let’s just say, here, people like to get drunk and they like their wallpaper to sing. And here’s some advice, don’t tell a performer how much you love the show if you’ve been texting during the set. I know it seems real dark, but we can see you. We see everything.

PC:Do you write poems? Or, could you speak to the ways in which song lyrics and poems differ, if at all?

JDD:I don’t write poetry anymore, really. I might work on non-fiction or do the rare freelance writing gig, but when it comes to verse, I pick up my guitar. It’s what I do now and where that part of my mind goes. Perhaps, when I’m too arthritic to fingerpick a 7th chord, poetry will still have me, but for now I’m chasing the song. The tools of the poet do make song lyrics more musical. Basic stuff, when used properly, will give your words music before you even know what key you’re in. Did you know you can sing most Rimbaud poems to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks? Rimbaud wrote those rhythms for Dylan. Early Kristofferson is Blake heavy. Not that lyricists are poets, but good ones have always looked towards the other arts or nature or love or God for inspiration, like all artists, some less self-consciously than others. Poetry has taught me how to look at the world in a deeper way. And I think that’s true for a lot of songwriters that are lyric focused. When I hear a songwriter, like Mickey Newbury, I can tell if they’ve read poetry. Good poetry, whether it’s Elizabeth Bishop or a limerick, and a well-written lyric, both understand that what makes you go back to them over and over is that they express something in a musical way that you can’t get elsewhere. No matter how good the novel or movie or TV show, you can’t get there what you find in Willis Alan Ramsey songs or Jared Carter poems. Poems and songs share a sense of beauty and mystery. But you don’t want to confuse a lyricist for a poet. Tim Hardin wrote beautiful lyrics, but you need his voice and not just the text, just as poetry isn’t just typed words on the page with random line breaks. If someone told me they liked Charles Olson, I’d say, “Have you heard Richard Buckner?” Or, if they read Donald Hall I might say, “Do you know that second Iris Dement record?” I do see commonality between songwriters and poets, but it extends beyond just lyrics. For me, an unresolved guitar chord might be my syntax. I will say most lyric-focused songwriters don’t live up to all this—it becomes didactic journaling lacking craft. Great aphorism writers in song, like Joe Tex and Bruce Springsteen, can create that tool for connection and immediacy as a way to tidy up an idea while still giving it plenty of room to breathe, much like a poet. I guess that’s why when I think of poetry, I think of dance and jazz and chess and sculpting as closer cousins than the guitar & pen handlers of the world. Most lyric-heavy songwriters don’t expand imaginations with their language.

PC:I recall an interview you did with David St. John for The Writer’s Chronicle?

JDD:I did interview David for The Writer’s Chronicle! It was around the time he published The Face, one of the funniest books of poetry ever, like Soderbergh’s film Schizopolis. And though it would be nice if that interview were available online somewhere for others to read because David’s answers are fantastic, I’m hardly a great interviewer of poets. David was a visiting writer for several weeks at O.S.U. and I wanted to spend time with him, pick his brain, and be in his presence. Since I wasn’t a student, I had to disguise my fandom as a literary query. David is a great lover of obscure music, too. I remember he wanted to talk records and I wanted to talk poetry.  Shortly after that, I politely stalked Robert Olmstead, which allowed me to attend a cocktail party at his house with Darcy Steinke. I think for me being around writers is what it must be like for some people to be around musicians. Not being in school, my chances to hobnob with authors are rare. I suppose that’s one of the reasons why people go to grad school, to be in a community of thinkers they admire, but that path was just never for me.

PC:Who are some of the other contemporary poets that have impacted you? Who do you read?

JDD:Is Mark Strand still considered contemporary? He’s an influence on everyone doing anything of value, I’d suspect, whether they know it or not. I bought a book a couple years ago by Laura Newbern, Love and the Eye, because I loved her poem in The Atlantic Monthly from 2001. I waited over ten years for that book. A friend recently had two poems published in Crazyhorse and sent me a copy. Just reading the poems in that one issue was a reminder of my expectations for language in my own songs. The Black Swans album, Occasion for Song, has a song called “Mask From Memory” with lyrics that imagine making a mask of someone’s face that passed away and wearing it so you can see the world through their eyes. I think I was under the spell of Charles Simic at the time. Not to say that all songs need to be heavy. Not necessarily contemporary, but some days I’ll google limericks. It’s nice to read something silly and joyful to a rhythm. Shel Silverstein, to me, is just as great a poet as Charles Wright. Some days I read haiku, which I enjoy and it helps me to write more concisely. I like Robert Hass and Joshua Clover, who are both inspiring as people beyond the page. I’ve had several periods in my life of marginal employment and spent those afternoons in the poetry section of the library. It’s an interesting way to read and be.

PC:You’ve done production work for such luminaries as Larry Jon Wilson and Ed Askew. Are you at work on any other projects like this right now? Any plans for future projects?

JDD:Producing albums by Larry Jon Wilson and Ed Askew were two of the best experiences I’ve ever had. And neither sounds like I did a thing, and that naturalness is part of their beauty, but not leaving a producer’s thumbprint makes it tough to get a name as a producer. Helping two great artists realize their music is something I’m very proud of and hope to do more of. But the reality is that I also lost a lot of money doing those records and there are not many musicians on that high of an artistic level that I’d be willing to do that for who actually need my help. Based on the Larry Jon record, I got a call a few years ago from one of my favorite songwriters and acoustic performers, and we talked some things over, but I don’t think we were on the same page. He wanted to take an approach that I wasn’t comfortable with so that conversation ended. Despite how beautiful I think both of those albums are and as fascinating as their backstories are, neither was an easy sell to a label. But, I’m always on the prowl for someone that captures my imagination, so who knows. It’d be nice to work with someone younger, but most younger people want to do something more commercial, whether they view it that way or not, which I understand as a valid need if you want to tour and have a label and make a go at it. But I didn’t choose that path for my music when the opportunities presented themselves, so I’m not going to encourage someone else to do that.