Fred Eaglesmith Tinderbox

Fred Eaglesmith Tinderbox
Ever heard an album where your jaw drops on first listen, then keeps sounding even better with every spin? Tinderbox is one such record. This isn’t the rowdy roots rock troubadour that has earned such a devoted following, and Eaglesmith’s creative courage here is admirable. Terms like "alt-gospel” and "grunge gospel” have been tossed around, not altogether accurately, though the massed background singing and shouting has an undeniably gospel vibe. That fits a unifying theme, one of people’s need to believe during times of hardship. There’s no sense of condescension or patronisation in Eaglesmith’s poetic portraits of his subjects. The 18 songs mesh seamlessly but with enough stylistic variety to hold your attention. "Quietly” is a haunting ballad, while "Worked Up Field” is a simply stunning two-minute number in which he sings over a female narration — avant-garde yet compelling. With insistent keyboards and gospel voices, "Get On Your Knees” punches home its message with the fervour of a hellfire and brimstone preacher, while "Shoulder To The Plow” (a co-write with Mary Gauthier) and the slow and dark "Killing Me” are other highlights. Along with co-producer Scott Merritt, Eaglesmith has fashioned a stark, sparse and primal sound (there’s an occasional Tom Waits feel) that suits the songs perfectly, while that signature gruff vocal style is in fine form. It’s his most adventurous and accomplished work yet, and how many artists now on their 17th record can you say that about? It’s hard to imagine a better roots-based record coming out this year.

Hi Fred. We caught you at a good time for a chat?
I’ll just pull over the truck while we’ve got service. Okay, we’re good.

How’s life on the road?
Things are good.

Doing many of the new songs from Tinderbox in the set?
Yes, about five or six. I’ve been doing them for a while, and people like them, for sure.

Congratulations on the disc. Getting sick of the unanimous praise yet?
This is the kind of record you make and then just hold your breath when you put it out. It is risky. We worked on it for a long time in my little dark studio up there. Then when it came out and was this well-received, it was "thank goodness."

So when critics call it your best work yet, do you agree?
I don’t listen to critics very much. A lot of my albums are my best work yet [laughs]. Or a lot is "this isn’t his best yet," then four years later, it’s "it was his best yet."

We can be a fickle bunch like that.
Well, to be fair I hardly ever get any bad stuff from the critics. I am very lucky, so when I take a jab at them, I don’t really have much of a right to.

There are unifying themes to this record. Was that the mandate originally, or did you just write songs and realize "we’re onto something here"?

What started was I wrote the song "Tinderbox" - "someone’s crying in the very back row." I always imagined it was a girl back there, so I sort of got onto her a little bit. I live in a Masonic lodge. My studio is upstairs and my art studio is downstairs. I’d go up at four or five in the morning and just write the song and record it right then. A lot of the songs on the record were done that way, then I’d get the band in and we’d work around that. I get these flashes of inspiration, and I’d go, "I’m going with this. I’m not going to second guess it."

So if you come up with certain characters and situations, does that spark others?
Yes, then you expand into different parts. I didn’t want to do much editing of the writing. I wanted it to just be the way I felt as I thought of it.

To me, musically it’s a perfect match, being primal and sparse, yet with some adventurous production touches. What was the thinking behind that?
Again, I did a lot of this recording myself. Then when I got the band in we’d do a lot of quick takes and quick pieces, and none of us would be sure if it would be any good. But I kept a lot of the original stuff and sent it over to Scott Merritt, and I let him edit it. So instead of making sure the parts were all perfect when they were played, I just made sure they sounded like they were believable. Then I let the editor have it after that, as opposed to the other way around - "that take’s not good enough. Do it again." Then you lose the feel. So a lot of this record is really off the cuff. First time, first pass, there are mistakes I kept in. We kept seeing a little Jonestown church, you know, Jim Jones.

Yes when I saw the album photos, that was the first image that popped into my mind.
Right. I really wanted to make an album for those guys. The fringes, the confused. So the playing had to be like that too.

These characters and emotions have a real authentic sense. It’s not like a condescending look at these people who are different than you and I.
Exactly. I was trying to give them some credibility. I was trying to say these people are just as passionate as anyone else and they deserve their day in the sun, just like everyone else. again, it was off the cuff.

Did exploring their stories spark more introspection on your part, along the lines of "what do I believe?"
One thing hat happened at the end of this album. I was raised a Christian in Southern Ontario. I haven’t been a Christian for a long time. I had to really look at Christianity harder. This is not a Christian record. There are no references to Jesus on this record in a good way. I really had to look at it hard myself. I think I’m less of a believer [laughs].

But you have this empathy with the believers.
Well, it’s like the Dalai Lama said. It’s better to be a Christian than to be nothing. I’m all about that. It’s like I created a church and a congregation here, and after I did it, I realized, "Well, I created this. So can anyone else."

Was it the Mennonite faith you were raised?
Well, it was similar. Very agricultural, very cultish, and with walls around the community.

How did you come across those amazing photographs on the cover?
My good friend Larry Towall is a world-renowned photo-journalist. He has a great book called The Mennonites. He followed them around for ten years, the Southern Ontario ones who go down to Mexico then back every year to work. Scott sent him over the album. I had a picture worked out. A lot of the inspiration for this record came from the snake churches in Tennessee. I’m really into these guys. Scott sent it to Larry, going "I don’t like the cover Fred chose for this. What do you think?" Larry called right away and said, "I’ve got some really good pictures for this record," and he did. It completes the package, that’s for sure.

The album has critics scrambling to described its style. It’s not a honkytonk or an alt-country record.
I think it’s a rock'n'roll record myself. In the style of Neil Young, say. I feel more comfortable with it being a rock'n'roll record than anything really.

So not keen on phrases like "grunge gospel" or "alternative gospel"?
I  sort of created those in talking to people before the record came out, but after it was out I listened to it and thought "this is just like a rock'n'roll record I used to listen to when I was a kid." We’re all scrambling for terms. It’s no more gospel than Creedence Clearwater in a way.

So like rock'n'roll in the Muddy Waters-inspired sense?
Exactly. like the Stones and stuff. That is my favourite era. Everyone is alt-country or alt-this these days. To me it’s pretty straightforward.

I saw one figure that you have a catalogue of 1,000 songs. Could that be accurate?
It might be. I have no idea. I have stacks of books of songs. I’ve been writing songs for 40 years, and my family keeps finding new books of songs. When I was a kid, I was writing three or four songs a day. But 1,000 songs doesn’t mean there are very many good ones.

I think you’ve had more than your share.
I was saying to someone the other day, "Do you think we need any more good songs?"

Speaking of good songs, you’re getting a reputation now as an artist other people want to cover. I know that’s been happening for a long time, but is it accelerating now?
Well, the profile of it is. I’ve had 75 songs covered. That’s a tremendous amount, but it was not often from major artists. If you took all the artists around the world that play my songs, in the clubs, there are thousands. I was in Lubbock, Texas, last year, and a guy said, "There are 14 bands in town tonight, and all of them play your songs." That was sort of my dream as a kid, that I would write songs like Hank Williams, songs that people would sing. I think I wanted that more than fame. The Toby Keith thing has really made people sit up and take notice. I get calls now saying, "Can you send some songs down?" It is fine. It’s all about staying the course. This is what I’ll always do. I always try to give a little nod to recognition, but it’s best not to get too wrapped up in it.

Possible to single out a favourite cover?
I'd say ones by Kasey Chambers from Australia. She did "Water In The Fuel" and "Freight Train," and whenever I hear her sing she makes me cry. They’re really some of my favourites. A girl called Heather Waters did "Water In The Fuel" once, and it was a really good cover.

You’ve been to Australia a few times?
About every year and a half. I’ll go back down in April as they’ve picked up my record there, so I’ll tour then.

Is performing live still a passion, not just a means to an end?
Well it is a means to an end in that it is how I make my living. I do a lot of things. I own a music store in Port Dover, I own a couple of businesses with my kids, and this business sort of sustains it all. It’s easy to get into the music business, it’s hard to get out [laughs]. I have a little plan, a strategy for how it is going to be better. But for right now we are having the best reaction, and the best numbers on the road we’ve ever had. I always say I’ll stop when it declines, and it has never declined. I feel really lucky. I can’t believe I’m still able to do this. I’m 51 years old. I can’t believe I’m still out there and that it’s getting better. I’m not some washed-up old folkie in the corner of a coffeehouse somewhere, playing for eight people. That’s where I thought it’d probably end. It’s not, so I have to keep at it. But I get tired [laughs].

Through career ups and downs, has it been important to get the respect of your peers? I know a lot of singer-songwriters here, and your name crops up constantly, and always in a positive way.
I have a real respect for the younger ones. Those my age, that’s okay, the ones that are a little bit older begrudged me, a little bit... I was the upstart, and that’s just a rite of passage; you’re the upstart, you’ve got to get kicked in the butt, right? And what I did, though I didn’t really mean to do it, I had my first record out in 1981, and I did it myself. It wasn’t being done very much then. So all those kids out there look at my career and go, "Well, he thumbed his nose at all those major labels, all those contracts. He’s un-buyable." And kids tell me all the time that gives them hope, even 21-year-olds. That’s a pretty cool guy to be in this world, right? I didn’t plan to be, but just by doing my work I set an example. That is pretty cool at the end of the day, a great accolade.

You’re clearly a source of inspiration to others. Who inspires you creatively? Painters, writers, poets?
That would happen to me before. I’m a painter too. That is good for me. I call it crop rotation. Generally what inspires me are everyday people. everyday working things, that existence. More than emulating artists. I think you do that when you’re younger, then as you get older, you say "Okay, I am the artist." And it’s then a shame to emulate.

When you look at the cultural landscape, do you feel part of that Canadian tradition of great singer-songwriters, or are you not really a cultural nationalist?

I’m really not a cultural nationalist, and I don’t really feel I’m part of the Canadian group. Because I’ve spent so much time in America, and really my success has been through America. I can’t deny that. I struggled here for many years, then I went to Nashville and got a contract in a month, a writing contract. Since then, well, I won a Juno after. Not that I begrudge it, I’m not mad about it. That’s the way things are in Canada. People don’t believe that Canada is much more closed-shop than a lot of places in the world. I’m not part of the old boys network, and they let me know. I’m not a government grants guy. A lot of musicians here just spin their wheels and end up being in dirt because it is a pretty closed shop. I had to leave, and I’m really glad I did. I consider myself a cross-border North American guy. In Europe I’m known as one of the Americana icons. They lump it all together, and I feel better about that. I don’t want people to call me American, but as far as the culture in Canada goes, I frankly have got more respect from the rest of the world. And I have some here now, but it has always followed their respect. It wasn’t first here, it was last.

Get to Europe very often?
Once or twice a year. I have a really good career there. Same as I do here, a small good career. I don’t fill big halls or stadiums. I fill small halls everywhere.

Still get inspired by travel? In cities in Europe do you check out the art galleries?
I don’t have a lot of time. If you do what I do, you have to work every night. this tour we have 27 dates and 35 traveling days, across Canada. that is how we work all the time. We’ll see the Van Goghs when we get a chance, but our life is in the truck traveling.

A tight band you’ve got at the moment?
Yes, this is a really good band. They’re good guys and they work really hard, and they’re musically inspired. Of course, they’re all young - 24 and 25 and 35, and nobody has played their instrument for very long, so everybody is inspired. I’ve started playing electric guitar for the first time in my life, from last year. I don’t know how to play it, but you’re much more inspired when you’re struggling.

But I imagine on some nights playing, you look over and expect to see Willie P. [Bennett, his long-time comrade who died recently] there?
Oh totally, and I hear the mandolin. That is pretty brutal. You have to make the rounds, and I haven’t been back to every club I played with him. You remember different things of him at different clubs. It is sort of a constant nag at you.

He’d be very proud of this record, I’m sure
Well, yes, and he’s all over it, but the thing is, he never heard it. It came out two days before he died. I woke up a few days after he died, and thought, "Well, if I had to make a last record with Willie, this is the one I’d want to make." When I made the record before this one, he didn’t really trust my recording ability, and on this record it was "I’ll do anything you want 'cause I totally trust you after that last record." So we could just go wild together.

You must have a real good empathy with [co-producer] Scott Merritt now?
He’s my good pal, and I really think he’s world class. We’re so lucky to have him in this country. Again, he’s under-utilized and under-appreciated a little bit. I’m so lucky to have him. He turns good records into great records. He just has that quality about him, like the difference between a blended and a single malt. Just takes you to the next level. He can turn a knob and just turn everything on its head and it feels so much better.

You’re heading west now. Is that mostly halls or some festivals?
Lots of small halls. Our preference is to back you into the corner of a small hall that’s too hot and people are too close to the stage. As we get to the 200 to 300 stage, they have to put us into the halls.

I hear you have one of your famous train tours, heading up north?
Yes, in November, we are going from Winnipeg to Thompson, to see the polar bears. That train is almost sold out. And we have one in September in New Mexico, a steam and coal train. They’re going to be fun. The trains are fun, especially when you can sleep on a train. Just go to sleep, wake up and you’re at the gig. The Rockies trains are the best, just fabulous.

Speaking of travel, I should let you get going to the next gig. Really appreciate the chat.
Thank you very much, and tell those guys at Exclaim! that I really really appreciate everything they’ve done for me, all the time. Tell them they’re the best, they really are. (Independent)