Published Jan 22, 2014Fred Eaglesmith is a hardcore Canadian troubadour. A relentless road warrior, he is in perpetual motion in his bio-fuelled tour bus, criss-crossing North America to perform for a loyal following. He also writes and records prolifically, as shown by the fact that his most recent release, Tambourine, is his 20th full-length album. It's a rock'n'roll record, inspired by the sounds and records of 1966.
His songs have been covered by such major country stars as Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, and Miranda Lambert, as well as by Cowboy Junkies, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Dar Williams, Mary Gauthier, Kasey Chambers, and many more, and he's an inspirational figure to a younger generation of alt-country and roots-rock bands and singer/songwriters.
Exclaim! tracked him down recently (on the road, of course). We found him in typically outspoken form, as you can see underneath his Canadian tour dates listed below.
03/29 Toronto, ON - Hugh's Room
04/12 Elora, ON - Elora Legion
04/25 Listowel, ON - Theatre 311
05/03 Ailsa Craig, ON - Ye Olde Towne Hall
06/06-07 Wakefield, QC - Blacksheep Inn
I gather you're driving through Florida for gigs at the moment?
Yes, our friend Delbert McClinton has a Cruise down here, so we come to play it every January [Sandy Beaches Cruise from Miami, January 19 to 26). The band really like it, the chocolates on the pillow! It's not my favourite thing, but they love it.
I see it's a great line-up this year, with people like Richard Thompson, the Mavericks and Marcia Ball playing.
Is that right? I didn't even know. The Mavericks were on last year, and they're fantastic.
With Tambourine, I gather you approached it a little differently, working on a lot of the songs right in the studio?
Since 9-11, I feel rock'n'roll has lost its way, and pop culture. Everybody just seems to be scrambling. There's a lot of effort out there. A lot of trying hard. I don't feel that way. I just let everything become its own thing. It's hard to explain, but this one did that. The last few records I've had, they all became their own thing. It sure is fun to get there, but there's a lot of soul-searching, both by me and [producer/engineer] Scott [Merritt].
So it was a matter of getting the band together in your own studio?
I told Scott what I wanted to do. I knew the reference of this album, though we both got to 1966 separately. We both called each other on the phone one day, talking about 1966. That was a great tangled-up mess for rock'n'roll. We both got that reference separately. Rock'n'roll from then sounds legitimate to me. Rock'n'roll has been sleeping for a long time, but I feel it is waking up a little bit. I can really tell by our crowds and the vibe and attitude in the places we play. I can tell how much they love it — "Ooh, I forgot about this." Country music has tried to do this for a while, but they just keep impersonating Steve Earle (laughs).
There are worse people to imitate.
Right, but poor Steve. They just sucked him dry.
So you had a certain sound or feel for the record and the songs slotted into that?
Yes, and Scott was really instrumental in helping me with that. My tastes are a bit more pedestrian than people might think. I'm not that cool, I didn't do enough drugs in my youth, know what I mean? So I need that shot, and Scott is so good at saying "Let's take it here." I might disagree with him, but we have a great back and forth. He gives a little, I give a little, and we get there.
You guys have worked together on so many records now.
We are good friends, but our relationship was mostly by accident. He just got some studio gear in the early days and he said "I can make a record for you," and we just did. I think he was even on my second record, playing banjo. He's been around the whole time.
You both love the analog approach I gather?
I don't like digital, and he hates the sound of it.
So you're on Neil Young's side there.
Yes, Neil knows. It is kind of surprising to me how the boomers bought into digital so readily. With analog, we achieved the summit. We should have stayed there. It was very convenient for the record companies and artists who maybe shouldn't have been artists. Now they could record on computer, it has opened the doors for a lot of bad art.
And now there's a younger generation who only know that compressed digital sound.
Yes, and the other stuff sounds odd to them. They like that high little sizzle on the top, and I hate that!
On Tambourine, there are lots of little sonic touches. Is that Scott playing a Farfisa?
Yes, there's that. He had an accordion running through a Portavox amplifier, the kind Led Zeppelin used to use on their first record. I happened to have one, so we plugged that in. Scott is just really good at helping us find a sound. He has great ears. Slowly we figured it out.
Is your home studio crammed with old gear?
Oh yes. I own an old Masonic lodge. It has two floors, and every time I see a great tape machine I buy it! I really like eight tracks. Most of those great '60s records used eight tracks. I have a beautiful eight-track one-inch recorder, by Ampex. And I have a nine-inch four-track recorder, and I have to soup that up. I just keep breaking and fixing them. It is mechanical. I can fix some of this stuff, but it's hard. And so hard to record with tape. It is so much easier on digital, but easier is not always better.
You do find younger roots bands and artists wanting to record on analog more now.
Right, but when I started early on I'd pay nothing for this gear. What has done me really well is that over all these years we've really tried to make our records sound great. That really matters when you are playing all over the world and your records are being played on radio. Some of my younger friends just sort of put them out, and that will not do well for them later. We get played a lot on alternative radio. We spent money and a lot of work on the records, and they'll tell us "We love the sound. We're playing it all the time." That has become very important.
This is album number 20. Do you reflect on the milestone?
I sort of was on the last record, a little more than on this one. I did a bit of looking back on the previous one (6 Volts), and on this one I'm moving forward again. I am still really on fire, creatively. I have more albums to make, more work to do. That's where I was on Tambourine.
Is it conscious to make every record different than the preceding one?
I remember when I was alternative country before there was alternative country. Within five years, every kid in Winnipeg had sideburns and were playing out of tune guitars and using out of tune voices. I always feel I have to move forward. Because I'm on the road all the time I think I have a bead on what's going on. Canada is always four or five years behind. They got into Americana when it was starting to slide. I have to be very careful because of my age. There are a lot of emulators. I always try to move forward. At the gig last night someone said "Well, you only played three or four old songs." That's really important to me, to be 56 years old and playing new songs, not resting on my laurels.
Are you pleased that your fan base goes with you, through the changes?
I actually lose a lot of fans because I change all the time. This Fredheads thing has been a myth for the last five or ten years. A lot of them jumped ship a long time ago. I don't blame them. I get onto one thing, then change. The nice thing is, like last night, where we played to 130 people in a little club in Florida, and half were new people. The ones riding with me are really happy about the change. The ones that drop off, I understand that. The most important thing to me as I get older is that I'm still vibrant, I'm still alive, and still tapping into the source, my creativity. I made an album a decade ago called Dusty. I initially lost half my fan base over that record, but to my day I feel really good about it. That's what I was feeling inside then, so I'll stand by it. I like it when that happens, like with Bob Dylan in the late '70s. People get off really quick these days, with all these options out there. Like these festivals with seven stages. I find that revolting. I remember when you'd have your last $3.50 and you'd spend it on an album. You'd listen to it 20 times even if you didn't like it, trying to make sure you really didn't. I think there's a lot to be said for that approach to art. People are so cynical now, they've been fooled so many times. That is what hurt the live music scene so much. People come, spend big money, and then they don't come back.
Had any more covers of your songs by big artists lately?
When I get the major artists I'm pretty lucky. All those major artists found the songs themselves. They weren't pitched to them. It drives my Nashville friends crazy, 'cos they're pitching songs every day. I am getting TV shows. I've never been a major artist guy, but young bands are finding my songs all the time, and I think that's a supreme compliment.
Still, the big royalty cheques won't hurt?
People don't realize that I had a publishing deal in the early 1990s, through to 2000, and I was vastly unrecouped. I was into my publisher for hundreds of thousands. Now he has his money back and I get a little cheque every now and then. And he helped me build my career back then.
Other tours coming up?
Yes, it's Texas after the cruise. It sounds so trite, but it's all good. I get to play the best clubs. Often the B clubs are better than the A clubs. I get to play both all across North America. Good clubs where they look after me and are happy to see me. They may be small, 150 people, but people are really excited and having a party. And the best things in our lives is playing all these legion halls. We are concentrating on that because it is totally separate from the music business. There is no promoter, it is all in-house. It's a hoot.
And you sometimes play Europe.
The great thing about my career is it's still growing. I was in Europe last year and it was up around 20 percent over my previous tour there. After being out there for so long, that makes me really happy. They're not putting me to bed yet! I played Australia a lot in the '90s. Kasey Chambers covered one of my songs. I haven't been there for a long. I can't stand the security going through LAX. I get to the point where I can drive my bus all around North America and have a great time, or I can stand at an airport for ten hours getting screwed around. I love to go to Australia, but it has to be a really generous thing.
Speaking of your tour bus, is it still powered by recycled vegetable oil?
It is getting harder to get. We've just got into Florida and I'm thinking about firing it up on vege now for here and when we go across Texas after the cruise.
Speaking of energy sources, have you been following the news about Neil Young and his anti-oil sands tour?
No, what is going on there? [Explanation is given.] The thing is, if you want to talk about Canada, it has sold its soul. It has the oil sands, there's the cell towers. Look up in the air in Canada. Look what Dalton McGuinty has done to Ontario with these windmills. People are dying out my way from them. People are leaving their homes in the middle of the night. Neil is a Canadian. He should say this. Is anyone going to stop and talk about beauty or the landscape, or are we now just this big, rich, gross country. That is what it looks like when you look up in the air these days. I just moved our store out of the Port Dover theatre. I was renting from them for ten years, but they put a cell tower right out our window. This is the new Canada, a bloated pig. You go out my way, along the lakeshore there. One of the most beautiful places around, and Dalton just put up as many windmills as he could cram in, without thought. Just put them in — "screw you all." Then he goes to Harvard after he lost his job. These days I'm never worried about Conservatives. I can see through them. I'm not worried about Rob Ford. It is the little squeaky-clean guys like Bob Rae and Dalton McGuinty that tell us they're going to be on our side. As soon as they get in, they're dangerous. As soon as they get a little power, they go insane.
Onto a happier topic. Are you already looking ahead to your next album?
I have been writing. I started writing a book of poems a couple of years ago, and now I'm writing a book of poems and short stories about the road and my life. In the meantime, I have three or four albums in my head that are three-quarters written. I'd like to make a really old country record, I have a blues record, I just write these songs. Once I stop being Fred Eaglesmith, I can write any song I want. I'm much more interested in classic songwriting these days. I want to be one of those songwriters who wrote the standards or the great blues songs. Songwriting in pop music isn't really that accepted these days, but to me it is fun to do.
Do you have your full band with you?
Oh yes. We're out for 65 days straight this time. This is a great band, we get on so well. They're a really hard-working band. They clean the bus, they put up the merch, the backdrop, we do all our own sound and lights some nights. It doesn't end. Right now it's as good as it gets.