Steve Earle

Washington Square Serenade

> > Nov 2007

Steve Earle - Washington Square Serenade
By Jason SchneiderAs the title suggests, Earle has settled in New York City, a place he once praised in song just because he "liked the way it sounds.” With Washington Square Serenade, he’s ready to put it under the microscope, and most would logically expect a guided tour of the city via Earle’s keen eye for gritty detail. Instead, we see the city as Earle’s idealised vision of America, a place where tolerance and free expression remain the most cherished values. This optimism is in some respects the polar opposite of the militant stance he took against the Bush administration on his previous two albums, The Revolution Starts Now and Jerusalem, and it takes some getting used to. Moreover, only on the twangy "Oxycontin Blues” and "Red Is The Color” is there any reminder of Earle’s good ol’ boy roots. Instead, there’s an ode to his new sideline gig as a satellite radio host, a tribute to his outspoken liberal forefather Pete Seeger, and a clutch of surprisingly intimate love songs to his new wife, singer-songwriter Allison Moorer. If assimilation into his new environment is what Earle was after, he’s certainly achieved it on this record, and fans hoping to once again hear the unrepentant Earle of Copperhead Road and I Feel Alright are just going to have to accept it.

First off, you make it pretty clear in the liner notes to the new record your reasons for moving to New York City, but I was wondering if you believe that it’s a model for how the rest of the country should be?
Well, yeah. It’s the one world-class city we have here. There are some cool cities on the east coast and the west coast, and in the middle of the country there’s some beautiful places too. I mean, I loved living in Tennessee, but I also wasn’t there very much. It’s just one of those deals where we have to remember that people around the world still perceive us as a place where you can come with nothing and still make something out of yourself. Whether that’s true or not, there’s still enough people in the world that believe it’s true that they come anyway, and I’ll be damned if they don’t actually make something of themselves, despite what people in the middle of the country think of them. So it’s a good time for all Americans to get to New York and take a look around because, whatever the founding fathers intended it to be, I think the best things about this country are all here in this town.

When you look at this record now, do you think you were in that mindset of starting from scratch?
Yeah. One of the main things was that I didn’t have the studio in Nashville anymore, and also I kind of wanted to keep the band out of the pre-production process. It ended up being a record where I worked with people I had never worked with before, and therefore a fresh start. It started because I finally learned how to use ProTools. I never had anything against that, I was just firmly entrenched in the analog world, which was what I knew and where I was comfortable. But I was living in a new place, so the idea of doing something different in terms of recording made sense. There’s stuff on this record that I recorded by myself in my apartment, and that was something I could never do with analog, I was never that good at it. So the democratic factor in working that way has impressed me, mainly in how I can flesh songs out now without the help of anybody else. Then, when I wanted to overdub drums and stuff, there was Electric Lady Studios just a couple of blocks from my apartment. It’s just a total New York record. There are a lot of love songs for Allison Moorer and also New York.

But for most people it’s not a Steve Earle record unless you’re trying to get some kind of point across. Did you also try to deliberately go about doing that in a different way?
No, I think my intentions are the still same now as they were when I did Copperhead Road, which is pretty political when you get right down to it. It was just that I felt I needed to make a more intimate record. A lot of it is really personal, but my job is to find within that personal stuff the experiences that are universal. That’s kind of what art is. I mean, truck drivers used to come up and talk to me about "Little Rock ‘N Roller” and "Guitar Town” because they related to them, but neither of those songs are about driving a truck. What we had in common was we had kids at home and we travelled for a living. So what most good art ends up being about are our similarities rather than our differences. What I needed more than anything else was to go through the process by myself before I involved anybody else.

Talking about some of the songs specifically, there’s one obviously inspired by your radio show. Do you think things like satellite radio have helped turn the tide more in favour of free expression?
It’s certainly one of the few places I get played anymore in the States. But on the other hand, it’s less concentrated than old broadcast radio was because there are so many channels and they’re so specialised. I think overall, it’s great to be able to go down the road and be able to listen to an entire baseball game without losing the signal, but basically it just sounds good. It’s less harsh sounding than some digital technology is.
(New West)
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