Published Oct 26, 2008Vancouver-based troubadour DeCroo made converts with his last album, the live disc War Torn Man. His following deserves to increase radically with this new tour-de-force, one already notching rave reviews. The sparse but adventurous production of Jon Wood (Herald Nix) and the empathetic accompaniment of such peers as Ida Nilsen (Great Aunt Ida), Sam Parton (the Be Good Tanyas) and Wood on guitar give DeCroo the perfect framework for his haunting and powerfully poetic songs. The slightly nasal quality of his voice may not be to all tastes but the quality of his writing is beyond reproach. "Is that rain coming down or is that gasoline?, DeCroo queries on "Gasoline, a simply stunning track featuring a Kerouac-ian lyrical vibe and spooky guitar lines. A stabbing rhythm and organ riffs punctuate "Long White Road, while fiddle (from Meredith Bates), lap steel and female harmony vocals add atmosphere to the more sombre numbers. Bleakness and desolation are frequent visitors on tracks whose roots noir feel occasionally bring the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Johnny Dowd to mind. DeCroo, however, is clearly an original, and Mockingbird Bible represents uneasy listening at its best.
So, tours going well?
Been going great. Having a lot of fun, maybe a little too much fun.
Well, if youre out with Carolyn Mark, thats no surprise.
I plead the Fifth [laughs].
What happens on the road stays on the road, right?
Yes, and I think Carolyn says that on one of her songs.
Lets talk about Mockingbird Bible, a strong piece of work. I havent seen any negative reviews yet.
Its been pretty unanimous so far. Im sure somebody will break the trend.
Is that gratifying after all the blood, sweat and tears that went into it?
Definitely. I was very nervous about this one. I was very proud of it. I felt we managed to put out a decent record but I was a bit nervous because its a pretty big departure from my last records. I didnt know how people were going to receive it. They were used to a certain sound and that last record did really well for me. So I was somewhat nervous that people were going to go, "well, what is this?
Did you feel these songs deserved a different treatment?
Exactly. I heard something different. When we started out on this process, to be honest with you, I only had a rudimentary idea of where we were going. I had the songs. I dont know how familiar you are with [producer] Jon Wood, who produced the album. Hes tremendous. His records, with Flophouse Jr, theyre just tremendous. I knew Id bring Ida Nilsen in and Sam Parton in. That was basically it, and Meredith on fiddle. We went in, and recorded the guitar and vocals together. I just laid down the songs alone, then slowly over the course of the year we built the songs up. I remember saying to Jon, "how long do you think this will take? He said something that put me very much at ease. He said, "I dont know. Well be done when we have a good record. It unfolded slowly over the course of a year.
To me, it still sounds spontaneous, rather than laboured.
Precisely. That is one of the joys. Ive worked with Jon a long time now and that is essentially the guiding principle in everything we do: to keep it as intuitive and spontaneous as possible. Jon is a guy whos been doing this a long time. When you get to our age were not in our 20s anymore if youre still doing this, and were not making a lot of money, you are doing it because you really love doing it. With Jon, there is no trace of ego in his work. Its just about servicing the song.
Does he have his own studio in Vancouver?
He has his basement suite studio. He has everything he needs down there. He has his Pro Tools. Jon is a guy whos been playing around with recording since he was 11 years old using a tape recorder. He doesnt need a lot.
I thought he might have been an analog purist.
Well, hes a little bit of one. The record was recorded on tape, just like the Truckers Memorial record I did [with Rae Spoon], and all the Herald records. Then Jon puts it in his computer after that.
Does Jon have ideas about things like song structure or is it just the technical end for him?
The song structure, for the most part, and the arrangements will be mostly mine but Jon does make a lot of suggestions. I didnt start doing this until I was 33. Id bring songs to the band, which Jon was in, and Linda McRae, so there are two people with a lot of history. Linda doesnt play with me anymore because she moved to Nashville. Anyway, Id bring in songs, theyd listen to me play them and theyd learn them real quick. Theyd go, "well, why dont we try this? So all my songwriting, to be honest, is completely informed by what Jon and Linda taught me. So Jon is there, hes the ghost in the machine. In terms of the instrumentation youre hearing on the record, a lot of that was determined by Jon. I dont pretend to be a producer, Im a songwriter, I gave him Carte Blanche because I trust him completely. Id go, "why dont we try a fiddle here? But for the most, part Jon chose a lot of that instrumentation and wrote the parts.
The end results vindicated your faith.
Well, there were a couple of other producers that approached me, saying, "Id like to make a record with you. One of them, who I wont name, said, "Rodney, I was really thinking about your songs. Nobody is really filling the Gram Parsons niche these days. Thats what I want to do with you. I was like, "what are you talking about? I thought we were going to make a record, which is a collaborative process and is about the songs. Its not about, "lets fill a Gram Parsons niche. Im the wrong guy to do that with. I dont pretend to be Gram Parsons. How do you duplicate that?
Or Townes Van Zandt or those other artists you get compared to.
Right. I get those reference points but what Id hope, if there is any justice in those references, is that I arrive at a place as a singer-songwriter in this loosely defined Americana tradition that Im involved in thats original. All those guys were originals.
You refer to being a late beginner as a songwriter. Do you sense youre getting better and better at the craft?
I think so. Im really fortunate that I started late because I had 20 years of fucking up behind me [laughs]. I went out and really made a lot of mistakes for a long time. I picked up a guitar, and it sounds kind of odd but I always knew I would do this at some point in my life. But I had to go out, spend some time on the street, cultivate a drug and alcohol problem, and basically screw up royally. The result of all of that was that I finally addressed all those problems. My wife had left me and Id lost my job, got kicked out of my place and I was staying at a friends. He had a guitar and he said, "you said you were going to do this one day. Do it. One of the hardest things to do in terms of writing songs is getting close enough to yourself to be able to put what experiences youve had in your life into your songs. Id like to think Im writing something a little more than a pop song. Not that theres anything wrong with a pop song.
Is part of that process therapeutic personally?
Exactly. I have a friend who said to me, "one good song is worth six months of psychotherapy. I dont know if thats true. I couldnt afford one anyway, but what I have found is that absolutely there is a therapeutic benefit. I also fortunately am aware that I, in myself, am not so inherently interesting that my therapy is going to be relevant to anyone. But I absolutely know that it is part of the process for me. Id like to think I have enough sensibility to observe the craft of songwriting, to have the final product be universal, have a certain degree of universality and a strength in the craft that it is of interest or import to other people.
And with the emotion involved, I gather that fans of your work are deeply affected by it.
That is what Im frequently told, and I see it at shows. I see that the songs have weight for people in their lives. I sat around listening to records for years. Whenever I went through the toughest parts of my life I would turn to songwriters. They didnt necessarily give me an answer. I dont think thats their job, but they got me through. So for me if there is some guy or woman sitting in their apartment at three a.m. and their partner has left home or there is some difficulty in their life and they put on one of my songs and listen to that as a soundtrack to get through, I think, "well, Ive done it.
It gives them the sense theyre not alone.
Yes. I think the beautiful thing about music is that there isnt a lot of opportunity, or we dont see them a lot of the time, for making connections, a meaningful connection with people in our day-to-day world. The beautiful thing about music is that it bypasses all that stuff immediately and provides connections. We need connections.
Ever find that your listeners worry about your psyche, or they draw conclusions as to what you are going through?
That happens [laughs]. In some instances they probably have a right to be worried [laughs]. Im of the frame of mind that if you can write a song about something and have enough clarity to get it into focus and have it worthy of being listened to then I dont think youre in any danger.
You say you came to songwriting late, but I get the sense youve long had a love of language. That shows on the poems on your website.
I started with poetry, right. I cringe when I think about it. I do have a book of poems out. I have another manuscript Im working on and there are some decent presses interested in that one. I remember being 17 and I had moved to Canada. I went briefly to high school here and had taken an English lit course. My teacher had this British accent and hed read John Donne to us, and it just blew my mind. So I was feverishly writing absolutely dreadful poetry. Through all the years of insanity there were a lot of years of insanity in my earlier years. My major concern then was, "how am I going to get high now? But I always had poetry. I read everything I could get my hands on and I wrote. That was the one consistent theme in my life. Id like to think that may have influenced my songwriting.
In some of these new songs, I detect a Jack Kerouac vibe.
Yes, I did go through a Kerouac phase. Havent read him in a long time and to be honest, Im a little suspicious of him now. I think that comes with age. Some of it does seem dated now doesnt it?
I still think On the Road is a very vital piece of work. It just jumps off the page. He wasnt so caught up in his Eastern philosophizing then. With that stuff, I just dont quite believe him. I had a friend who came to Vancouver. He was doing his masters degree in architecture when he read On The Road. He went out the next day, quit school, bought a motorcycle and rode to Vancouver. I think its great when books affect people like that.
Aside from your American roots, has being in Canada so long had an influence upon you, in terms of literature, music, etc.?
Yes, absolutely. I fell in love with the poems of Al Purdy. I was really blessed. I contacted Al Purdy. I was so familiar with his poetry and I looked up his number in Ameliasburg, Ontario. I called him. This voice goes, "hello [imitates hoarse voice], and I go, "hello, Mr. Purdy. My name is Rodney and Ive just finished reading your book, and I wanted to call you. Im a poet. And he laughed. He said, "of course you fuckin are. Then I read a poem Id written to him and he listened, laughed in all the right places. At the end, there was a pause and I heard him say, "thats a fine poem, Rodney. I swear to god, to this day I cant tell you what a thrill that was. Then I got to meet and spend time with him. He was so generous. You read Purdy and its not an American perspective. There is room for doubt, room for questioning. People ask me, "why do you stay in Canada? You should be down in the states. But I cant breathe in the States. I can breathe here. There is space, there is room for consideration, room for reflection. Canadians really think about things and their judgement is tempered with an awareness of the other, where Americans are bold, forceful, and aggressive. I find it really interesting that Canadians are allegedly so insecure about their identity. I think Canadians are profoundly comfortable with themselves, and have a very mature sensibility. They dont make all these assumptions about their role in the world, their place in things, so they dont have this narcissistic relationship with themselves that Americans have. I think America is on the verge of having a psychotic breakdown. Yes, and economic. I think the two go hand in hand. Canadian poetry, Canadian music, its a whole other creature.
Do you get to play in the States at all?
Ive never bothered to get down there and am in no big hurry to do so. My records get bought by Americans online. For the first time I will be touring there in January and February but Im in no rush. I chose to live in Canada. I love it here. I was asked by a reporter the other day, "where do you see yourself in ten years? I said, "playing Edmonton, playing Toronto. If Im still doing that in ten years, Ill be a really happy guy. Hopefully Ill sell a few more records!
I gather youre part of a close-knit roots music community in Vancouver?
I am. Its interesting. I spent some time in Montreal a couple of years ago. That is where a lot of songs on this album were written. There had been several deaths in my family, including my father, for whom my last record had been written. That album led to a reconciliation between us. The upshot was, after his death, and that of a couple of other family members, and the end of a relationship, I just needed to get away from everybody for a while. So I went to Montreal. It was great. I was really embraced there and playing shows on a regular basis, getting great turnouts, and being made to feel very welcome. When it came to finding roots musicians to work with, well Montreal has a very different musical focus. In terms of the roots community, it was difficult. In Vancouver, the pool is so deep for roots musicians. You dont realise that until you leave. So I was like, "Ive got to get back to Vancouver. But unfortunately in terms of audience there, its a very small community. Basically I only play at the Railway Club. Thats where I launched my record and where Ill play when I get back at the end of the tour. When I first started, well, does the name Chris Houston ring a bell?
I know him a little bit from his punk rock days.
Right, Forgotten Rebels. Chris is great. He used to run a little open stage at The Marine Club here on Sunday evenings, which is now gone. It was called Chris Houstons Cattle Call. And basically thered be no one there, just Chris sitting in the corner waiting for someone to show up [laughs]. I had a friend who noticed this. I was driving everyone nuts then because Id be sitting around my kitchen, writing songs every day. Id hold people hostage for an hour and play them my songs. My buddy said, "lets go down to this open mic. I went down and Chris was great. He kept me coming back every week, doing my songs. Then he said, "lets make a little CD, so I went over to his place, sat in the kitchen and recorded a little album. He did a great job of recording it but Im really embarrassed about the songs. I basically steal it back from people wherever I can. Im trying to eradicate it.
Thats the skeleton in your closet?
It is. The upshot of that was Chris convincing me to do a little launch at the Marine Club. Linda Macrae [Spirit Of The West] showed up. Paul Rigby, who plays guitar with Neko Case, showed up. Marc lEsperance, a producer and drummer who has worked with everyone, all these people were there. After I finished, Linda came up to me and said, "my name is Linda. Id really like to play bass with you. By the end of that first night I had a band. My next gig was at The Railway Club. People just supported you straight away if they liked what you were doing. Thats rare. Thats the way Vancouver is. The record label Im on, Northern Electric, its run by Richard Chapman and its a collection of like-minded people. He facilitates putting out the records and works really hard but we all own our records. We make the decisions about the production, the artwork, everything. We all support each other. That record label is like a family. For me, being on the same record label as Herald Nix, thats a total thrill. I go out and visit Herald in Salmon Arm. I cant believe this guy is my friend.
Talk about an undiscovered genius.
If there is anything about Canada I am a little sad about its that a guy like him, if hed been putting records out in the states, it might take a while but he would be way more embraced. Hes an enormous talent. Those last three records that last one, its just an incredible piece of work. And Ronnie Hayward too, then Jon Wood, who is a whole other kettle of fish. His own music is quite different from Heralds. Then Ida [Great Aunt Ida]. She collaborated on my record.
With your own gigs now are they usually solo?
No, Im with the band. I was talking with Carolyn [Mark] a while back, going "lets do a tour together. Wed met in Jasper and she called me up in Vancouver, saying she wanted me in this singer-songwriter showcase at The Railway Club. I went down and afterwards said, "lets do a tour together. Ive got a record coming out. Usually I tour with my band in Western Canada. Were doing the old Sun Records thing where were sharing my band. They back her up then we all play together and she joins us on the keyboards. A lot of harmonies too. Its an absolute blast. I dont want to go home!
Well, point the van in our direction. Hope youve got some Toronto gigs planned?
I hope too. Toronto is tough, as it sure is expensive to bring a band out there. I was there last year, did some solo shows at The Horseshoe, Mitzis and The Tranzac. Id sure love to play there with my band. That will happen eventually. (Northern Electric)