Interview: Colter Wall Explores His Western Heritage on ‘Songs of the Plains’
If Colter Wall's new album, Songs of the Plains, came on unexpectedly, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was old music from the 1950s and '60s. The 11-track album sounds as though it was recorded decades ago, by someone intimately familiar with Western life and culture, not a 23-year-old singer-songwriter in 2018.
A native of Swift Current, Saskatchewan, Canada, Wall's intimately familiar with the 21st century version of that way of life, however, and a student of old-time folk, country and Western artists. It's why his seven self-penned songs for Songs of the Plains fit well next to covers of alt-country singer-songwriter Billy Don Burns' "Wild Dogs" and Canadian cowboy Wilf Carter (aka Montana Slim)'s "Calgary Round-Up," as well as the cowboy traditionals "Night Herding Song" and "Tying Knots in the Devil's Tail."
Wall recently caught up with The Boot, shortly before both dropping his new album and launching an extensive headlining tour on Friday (Oct. 12). Read on to learn more about his time in the studio (and outside the studio) with producer Dave Cobb, his favorite Western albums and more.
I wanted to know a little bit more about working with Dave Cobb on this album. This album sounds like more of a partnership, production-wise, than 2017's Colter Wall, your first with him.
Yeah, that was definitely how it turned out, and a lot of that had to do with making sure the record ... It was more premeditated than the last one.
When we went to make the last record, I had all those songs ready already, but I wasn’t quite sure how they were gonna turn out, production-wise, so I wanted to sorta let Dave take the reins with most of that. I had a little bit of input from myself, but I really kinda wanted to see where he’d take it, because I’m such a fan of his work.
And this new one -- you know, I had more of an idea of what I wanted on this new one. I had more of a vision, I guess you’d say, for lack of a better word ... I sort of wanted to -- obviously Dave is very much still stepping into that producer role, but I was kind of his co-pilot. We were sort of figuring it out together, and we’d bounce ideas off each other a little bit more than on the last record, and I’m glad it turned out that way because it ended up being the best of both worlds, having another set of ears there to just work out ideas together and work out little nuances and everything that makes a record great, so I’m really happy with how it turned out.
I'd imagine with an album like this, which is so conceptual, you're hearing a very specific thing in your head when you're writing them.
Yeah, absolutely. The theme and the concept of the record is so near and dear to my heart just as a Northwesterner, a Western Canadian. That’s what this record is really about, so it just sort of made sense to approach it like that. A lot of this stuff turned out how I imagined, and some of it didn’t, and that’s the beauty of the studio: Sometimes, you have stuff come out just how you thought, and other times, you might get surprised by something.
Has the Western Canadian cowboy culture always been fascinating to you? How did you get into this "scene"?
Well, it’s definitely something that I took more and more of an interest in as I’ve gotten older. And the more time I’ve spent away from home, living in the States and touring a lot -- I don’t get to see my home that often, and it’s that whole "distance makes the heart grow fonder" thing, where, the longer you spend away from where you’re from, the more you start to miss it, I suppose, and the more you start to realize what it is about it that makes it home, what it is about it that makes it so near and dear.
That meant a lot to me with me exploring -- just starting to write some more Western songs, which had always been, whether I knew it or not, sort of prevalent in my songwriting -- musically, obviously, but now it’s just sort of become more aware of it, I think, and it was really important for me to make this record to tell the story of where I’m from, and also just to make a Western record. You know, people don’t really do it anymore, not like they used to anyway; it’s an all-too-forgotten subgenre of country music, and I think that’s kind of a shame ... and I just wanted to try my hand at it, as someone that’s Northwestern. It was important to try to do this and try to do it right. We’ll see what people think of it, but I think we hit the mark.
As a fan of that subgenre, what would you recommend, album-wise, if people wanted to explore that music?
That’s a great question. I think a few months ago, while we were prepping for the release of this record, I was doing a lot of press stuff, and I kept referencing certain albums that were just big points of reference for influence on this album, and just stuff that I played for Dave so we could kind of get an idea of, sonically, what we were trying to do, and thematically what we were trying to do, and the ones that came up were definitely Marty Robbins albums -- those ‘60s gunfighter and trail song ones [1959's Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs and 1960's More Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs]. Those were pretty important, or even an album like [1966's] Drifter, was a great Marty Robbins Western record that had a lot to do with how this album came together.
And even guys like Tex Ritter -- I’m a huge fan of Tex Ritter. [1960's] Blood on the Saddle is one of my favorite cowboy records of all time. And I was really listening to that one really heavily while writing some of these songs and getting all the ideas together for this album.
And then there’s a few others too that are great: My favorite folk singer is Ramblin' Jack Elliott ... [He] was one of those guys who kinda covered all the bases in folk music: He did the blues stuff, he did some of the more Southern Appalachian bluegrass stuff, and then he did a bunch of cowboy songs. He was something of a cowboy himself, and I was just such a huge fan of his. He did some records that are strictly cowboy songs with Monitor, back in the day [Monitor Presents: Jack Elliott Ramblin' Cowboy], and it’s really hard to find. I just recently found it online somewhere, but, yeah, those are a handful of records that I’d say were pretty crucial in the way that the songs turned out and the way the record turned out.
What made the two cowboy traditionals and two cover songs you put on this album the right fit?
Well, I knew I wanted to have at least a few traditional cowboy songs on the record, 'cause it just made sense with the theme, but I guess I also wanted to pick two that were a little more obscure, that a lot of people might not have heard of ... I kinda wanted to do some weird ones that maybe people wouldn’t be as familiar with, and there’s some really great -- like, "Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail" is one of my favorites, and it definitely -- Cowboy songs often have great humor, and that’s a great example of that.
And then, of course, "Night Herding Song" is kinda neat musically because it’s really sort of an a cappella piece, which I had never really tried to do before, so it was kind of a fun challenge that ended up working really well for this album.
I covered that Wilf Carter song on the record [because] I knew we needed a single on the album, and I wanted a rodeo song, and it just felt right to do a Wilf Carter song, being that he’s a Western Canadian and he’s kind of a legendary figure, and, again, people have sort of forgotten about him over the years. You know, people up here are kinda -- they’ve kinda forgotten the days of Wilf Carter, so it was important for me to do that tune ... I didn’t have to think about that one; if there was one thing I knew about this record, I knew that I had to try to do a rendition of it.
And then I guess the Billy Don Burns one was a little different, because it’s kinda the least Western, thematically and lyrically, compared to the rest of the tunes on the record; it seems a little out of place. But the way that Billy Don wrote the song and the chord progression, which felt like it was very balladeer-esque -- I just love the way it sounds -- so that combined with the pedal steel that we threw on top of it, that just kinda sounded so beautiful, with the harmony. [It] really was sort of more of a sonic commentary, more than the actual lyrics of the song -- just the tone of the track and music itself. That was kind of the aim with that one, I guess.
You used some out-of-the-box techniques to record "Night Herding Song" and "Devil's Tail," too: a campfire-side recording session at Cobb's house for the former, some tequila-driven liquid courage for the latter.
Yeah. That’s the thing about Dave, and part of the reason he’s doing so well and getting so much recognition right now: He’s a really great producer in the world of country music 'cause he’s just really great at -- you can’t create moments like that. You have to be there; you can’t really fake stuff like that. Dave is such a great facilitator of that sort of thing in that he’s able to create an environment that’s conducive to moments like that. And then, obviously, he has all these great producer tricks, too, and he’s also a great musician, but I think one of of his real talents is to facilitate that necessity for an environment that allows stuff like that to happen out of the blue. Because he’s such an easygoing guy and so easy to get along with, and [when] you get a bunch of creative people in a room at the right time, you can capture a bunch of beautiful stuff, and Dave is certainly a master of that.
But "Night Herding Song" was funny 'cause we tried to record it in the studio in RCA one day, but there’s no reverb in the room ... It’s really hard to do a piece like that without any reverb because you can’t hear anything back ... So we ended up going to his house and going to his backyard and lighting a fire, actually, [and] pulling the microphone out from his little studio in his basement out into his backyard, and wiring it inside and recording the fire, and sitting around playing that song, which kinda felt perfect for what the song’s about. It worked out; it was just the right call, and it was Dave’s call. You know, he just knows what to do in what situations, and it’s part of why he’s doing so well.
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