Steve Earle Washington Square Serenade

Steve Earle Washington Square Serenade
As 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.

There’s also the song in tribute to Pete Seeger. Springsteen also paid tribute to him, but in the back of your head do you ever think you’re the guy to carry on his legacy?
I don’t know about that. I think more than anything it’s important for me to remember that Pete never gave up, never stopped. They blacklisted him, they did whatever they could to him, but he kept on doing what he did. When Pete was blacklisted and couldn’t make records, couldn’t get played on the radio, he went out and played at children’s camps and warped young minds. Nothing could stop him, and I think it’s important that people are reminded every once in a while what a badass Pete Seeger is.

But all your fans know that you were almost in a similar situation when you came out early on with your criticism of George Bush and the war. Do you feel that the artistic community was slow to join you in that respect?
Yeah, and I don’t think it was an accident either. There were people who were putting a lot of energy into intimidating artists. It’s like what happened to the Dixie Chicks, and they weren’t particularly political artists, but one off-hand comment made on stage in another country and all of a sudden all that stuff happened to them. We were going through a unique period in our history when suddenly it became an issue. I mean, I don’t care what Britney Spears has to say about politics, but at the same time I’m not Britney Spears. I made a conscious decision to be an artist, and for that reason I probably sold a lot less records than I could have, not just because I commented on politics but because of my artistic choices. I still sell enough records to make a living – I make an embarrassing amount of money for a borderline Marxist – and I earn it through doing something I love to do so I have no complaints. I don’t have any problems with the music business, and I don’t have any problems with downloading. If people want to download my music, go right ahead. That’s not my idea of a political issue because nobody dies. I’m just happy to be making a living doing something that I love.

It’s great to hear that it sounds like you’re in the most positive frame of mind you maybe have ever been. Are you equally optimistic about what might result from the next election?
That’s probably a vast overstatement. I don’t know what’s going to happen and I’m a little worried about what I’m going to do. I don’t know who I’m going to support, but I also don’t believe that there’s any percentage in being negative. I’m not one for tearing stuff down just to tear it down, I really believe that we are capable of more, and we can change the world and make it a better place for each other as a species on the planet. I’ve seen it done in other places that practice a purer form of democracy than they do in my country, including Canada. I know it’s not perfect, but I think we can learn from you guys how a country can take better care of its citizens. But don’t get too cocky about it, because there are some frightening looking American things happening there, and in Europe. It’s really scary that there’s a real strong conservative streak out there. I mean, I remember reading an editorial in the Globe & Mail three years ago that said when Canada becomes part of the United States, not if. That’s scary shit. But congratulations on the exchange rate, I’ve been laughing my ass off about that.

Yeah, that caught us all by surprise, and of course now everyone’s wondering when the savings are going to kick in.
Well, trust me, no one gets to be the most powerful country in the world forever. You know, Canada could be the most powerful country in the world just because there are people killing each other over water right now. Hopefully someone there hasn’t already sold your water rights to the United States when nobody was looking. I’m not sure that hasn’t happened already because Canada has most of the fresh water in the western hemisphere. That could change the complexion of everything.

Well, that could be a whole other discussion, but I guess lastly, when can people expect to see you up here again?
We’re going to start touring in Europe in January, and this entourage is going to be pretty small. Allison will be along and I’ll do half the set solo and the other half with a DJ. We should be in Canada starting in March and we should hit everywhere except the Maritimes the first time through. We’ll get back there later in the tour. (New West)