Rodney DeCroo Mockingbird Bible

Vancouver-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, tour’s going well?
Been going great. Having a lot of fun, maybe a little too much fun.

Well, if you’re out with Carolyn Mark, that’s 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.

Let’s talk about Mockingbird Bible, a strong piece of work. I haven’t seen any negative reviews yet.
It’s been pretty unanimous so far. I’m 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 it’s a pretty big departure from my last records. I didn’t 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 don’t know how familiar you are with [producer] Jon Wood, who produced the album. He’s tremendous. His records, with Flophouse Jr, they’re just tremendous. I knew I’d 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 don’t know. We’ll 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. I’ve 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 who’s been doing this a long time. When you get to our age — we’re not in our 20s anymore — if you’re still doing this, and we’re 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. It’s 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 who’s been playing around with recording since he was 11 years old using a tape recorder. He doesn’t need a lot.

I thought he might have been an analog purist.
Well, he’s a little bit of one. The record was recorded on tape, just like the Trucker’s 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 didn’t start doing this until I was 33. I’d bring songs to the band, which Jon was in, and Linda McRae, so there are two people with a lot of history. Linda doesn’t play with me anymore because she moved to Nashville. Anyway, I’d bring in songs, they’d listen to me play them and they’d learn them real quick. They’d go, "well, why don’t we try this?” So all my songwriting, to be honest, is completely informed by what Jon and Linda taught me. So Jon is there, he’s the ghost in the machine. In terms of the instrumentation you’re hearing on the record, a lot of that was determined by Jon. I don’t pretend to be a producer, I’m a songwriter, I gave him Carte Blanche because I trust him completely. I’d go, "why don’t 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, "I’d like to make a record with you.” One of them, who I won’t name, said, "Rodney, I was really thinking about your songs. Nobody is really filling the Gram Parsons niche these days. That’s 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. It’s not about, "let’s fill a Gram Parsons niche.” I’m the wrong guy to do that with. I don’t 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 I’d 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 I’m involved in that’s original. All those guys were originals.

You refer to being a late beginner as a songwriter. Do you sense you’re getting better and better at the craft?
I think so. I’m 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 I’d lost my job, got kicked out of my place and I was staying at a friend’s. 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 you’ve had in your life into your songs. I’d like to think I’m writing something a little more than a pop song. Not that there’s 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 don’t know if that’s true. I couldn’t 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. I’d 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 I’m 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 didn’t necessarily give me an answer. I don’t think that’s 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, I’ve done it.”

It gives them the sense they’re not alone.
Yes. I think the beautiful thing about music is that there isn’t a lot of opportunity, or we don’t 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]. I’m 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 don’t think you’re in any danger.

You say you came to songwriting late, but I get the sense you’ve 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 I’m 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 he’d 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. I’d 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. Haven’t read him in a long time and to be honest, I’m a little suspicious of him now. I think that comes with age. Some of it does seem dated now doesn’t it?
I still think On the Road is a very vital piece of work. It just jumps off the page. He wasn’t so caught up in his Eastern philosophizing then. With that stuff, I just don’t 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 it’s 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 I’ve just finished reading your book, and I wanted to call you. I’m a poet.” And he laughed. He said, "of course you fuckin’ are.” Then I read a poem I’d written to him and he listened, laughed in all the right places. At the end, there was a pause and I heard him say, "that’s a fine poem, Rodney.” I swear to god, to this day I can’t 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 it’s 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 can’t 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 don’t make all these assumptions about their role in the world, their place in things, so they don’t 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, it’s a whole other creature.

Do you get to play in the States at all?
I’ve 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 I’m 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 I’m still doing that in ten years, I’ll be a really happy guy. Hopefully I’ll sell a few more records!

I gather you’re part of a close-knit roots music community in Vancouver?
I am. It’s 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 don’t realise that until you leave. So I was like, "I’ve got to get back to Vancouver.” But unfortunately in terms of audience there, it’s a very small community. Basically I only play at the Railway Club. That’s where I launched my record and where I’ll 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 Houston’s Cattle Call. And basically there’d 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 I’d be sitting around my kitchen, writing songs every day. I’d hold people hostage for an hour and play them my songs. My buddy said, "let’s 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, "let’s 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 I’m really embarrassed about the songs. I basically steal it back from people wherever I can. I’m trying to eradicate it.

That’s 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 l’Esperance, 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. I’d 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. That’s rare. That’s the way Vancouver is. The record label I’m on, Northern Electric, it’s run by Richard Chapman and it’s 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, that’s a total thrill. I go out and visit Herald in Salmon Arm. I can’t believe this guy is my friend.

Talk about an undiscovered genius.
If there is anything about Canada I am a little sad about it’s that a guy like him, if he’d been putting records out in the states, it might take a while but he would be way more embraced. He’s an enormous talent. Those last three records — that last one, it’s 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 Herald’s. Then Ida [Great Aunt Ida]. She collaborated on my record.

With your own gigs now are they usually solo?
No, I’m with the band. I was talking with Carolyn [Mark] a while back, going "let’s do a tour together.” We’d 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, "let’s do a tour together. I’ve got a record coming out.” Usually I tour with my band in Western Canada. We’re doing the old Sun Records thing where we’re sharing my band. They back her up then we all play together and she joins us on the keyboards. A lot of harmonies too. It’s an absolute blast. I don’t want to go home!

Well, point the van in our direction. Hope you’ve 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, Mitzi’s and The Tranzac. I’d sure love to play there with my band. That will happen eventually. (Northern Electric)