Interview: Colter Wall Talks Vinyl, Personal History and His Debut Album
"When you break it all down, it's very simple: Just tell a good story. That's all it takes. If you can tell a good story, you're in."
"It's kind of like a culture shock," Wall tells The Boot about his first trip to Manhattan. "It's the polar opposite of where I grew up. It's a little strange, but it's been great just to be in the thick of it all."
Where he grew up is a big part of why Wall writes and sings and plays the way he does: "I grew up listening to country music because that's what was playing in our house," he recalls. "I grew up in a pretty small town in a rural area in southwestern Saskatchewan, close to the Montana border. You either work the oil rigs, or you farm, or you ranch. Naturally, country music was everywhere; it was all over the radio, and it was always on in the background."
You either work the oil rigs, or you farm, or you ranch. Naturally, country music was everywhere; it was all over the radio, and it was always on in the background.
Wall's first experience with playing music was taking piano lessons as a little kid. He quit to play sports — a decision he calls a "terrible idea" -- and, at the age of 13, picked up a guitar. He's been playing one ever since.
"At first, I was sort of trying to play AC/DC and [Black] Sabbath and [Led] Zeppelin, because that's what you do when you first play the guitar. After that, I got into a lot of old blues artists and started to dig on that stuff. Then I started listening to folk music," Wall remembers, "and that's around the time when I wanted to start writing."
Wall's initial biggest influences were the likes of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, but through his time with folk music, he eventually came full circle, back to the country music he grew up on.
"I didn't start out necessarily playing that stuff," Wall admits, "but it was always in me, and I made my way back around to it. George Jones. Waylon Jennings. Willie Nelson. Hank Williams Sr. and [Hank Williams] Jr. Guys like that."
Another authoritative voice in Wall's musical world is that of Ray Wylie Hubbard. When Hubbard's name is mentioned, Wall beams.
"We got to talk to Ray Wylie when we were at SXSW," Wall shares. "He was playing the Continental [Club, a legendary Austin, Texas, venue]. Me and John, who plays in the band, and a few others went down there to see him, and I got to chat with him a little bit after the show. He put on an amazing set, but when we got outside, he was bitchin' about how his amp head wasn't doing what he wanted it to do."
Wall continues, putting on his best impression of Hubbard: "I'm sorry, boys. The show is usually better than that." He adds, "All of us were like, 'No, no, no, Mr. Hubbard! It was great!' What do you say to Ray Wylie Hubbard, you know? I love Ray Wylie. We play his tunes every now and then."
Outside of the musical fabric of his small town, Wall admits that he's been shaped by a number of other factors: "My family went to a Mennonite Baptist church — they're pretty conservative Christian folk," Wall shares. "We weren't on a colony or anything like that, but it certainly shaped me throughout the years."
"I've kind of found my own way as far as faith goes. I went in a different direction than I'm sure my folks would like. They're pretty God-fearing folk, which is all well and good -- I have no problem with that -- but it's not really my deal, at least not right now," he says. "But, it's certainly affected me and my writing in a lot of ways. Being raised Christian and going to church in a small town, that has a lot to do with my makeup as a human being, and has a lot to do with my songwriting, too."
I've kind of found my own way as far as faith goes. I went in a different direction than I'm sure my folks would like.
What's a conversation about faith without injecting some political discussion, too? For Wall's family, the two go hand in hand, as his father is a local politician.
"Back home, he was sort of like a governor. Everybody knew him; he's a pretty big public figure, especially in our little hometown," Wall explains. "It's been something I've had to figure out how to deal with. Anytime you have a relative in politics, you're going to catch some flack from people, because that's just part of the gig. A lot of folks back home refuse to listen to my music because of that. To me, they are two entirely separate things, and I hope people can listen to it with an unbiased ear and appreciate -- or not appreciate — the music on its own. It's kind of a weird thing that I've had to deal with for a few years."
Though he's nearing his 22nd year on this earth, Wall writes and sings with the passion and experience of someone who's taken a few hundred trips around the sun. Many critics have referred to him as the future of country music, but it's more fun to think of him as some time-travelin' prefiguration of what country music was always meant to be.
"I like to read a lot of [John] Steinbeck, and I'm pretty big on poetry," Wall explains. "I listen to, and play a lot of, old traditional folk songs, like murder ballads. Back then, they spoke differently and worded things differently; they had different ways of putting together a sentence."
Wall admits that's a big reason he writes the way he does: "I love those old folk songs, and I love the whole aspect that nobody knows who wrote them," he says. "It belongs to nobody and it belongs to everybody at the same time. I'm always really happy that people appreciate the stories I'm trying to tell."
Many of Wall's musical stories are from his own personal experiences ... even if they are embellished a little bit. The murder ballad "Kate McCannon," however is pure fiction; laughing, Wall confidently states, "I've never killed anybody."
As Wall reflects on his own history and celebrates the release of his debut album, he's not planning on taking a break anytime soon: "I'm already thinking about the next album and the one after that," he says with a smirk on his face. "I just love being in the studio and cutting records. I've got my eye on the next thing already, and [I'm] hoping we'll be able to do something for next year's Record Store Day."
For those who have been with him since his first EP, Imaginary Appalachia, Wall has some exciting news, too: "We're going to press it on vinyl and put it out," Wall shares. "We're working on that whole process right now, and hopefully before the year's over, we'll have that out on vinyl for people to get. We'll make a bunch more CDs, too, and put those all out there."
I just love being in the studio and cutting records.
If it sounds like vinyl is important to Wall -- well, it is.
"Having wax is huge, man; it's my favorite way to listen to music," Wall says. "When I cut that EP a few years ago, I meant to press it on vinyl, but I just didn't have any management or representation at that time, and it got put on the back burner. The day we got this new record in the mail and it was an actual record, that was a pretty special day for me; that was the first time I held my own record on vinyl. I appreciate people wanting to listen to it on vinyl, because I think it's the kind of album that is really more suited to listening to on a record player. That's what we had in mind when we were cutting it."
Wall's debut LP is meant for an intentional listening experience, one he equates with reading a book.
"To me, it seems sacrilegious to consume an album by only listening to certain songs," he quips. "I'm a firm believer in, whoever has created a record has made it to where you should listen to it front to back. It's like reading a novel ... you don't just pick your favorite chapter and read it over and over again. You read the whole book."
Fortunately for Wall, his debut record is a book that is full of unforgettable stories.
"That's all it takes," Wall says. "If you can tell a good story, you're in."
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