Interview | Cory Chisel: “All I’m trying to really do is to add to the Great American Songbook.”

Photo by Jo McCaughey

My favorite Bob Dylan album is, and always will be, Desire. (And yes, I’ve played the wonderful Time Out My Mind and Blood on the Tracks to death.)

As a lover of music, its songs first taught me the difference from being angry and being confident, and that telling the truth is the easiest path to expose emotions like fear and regret. Listen to “Oh, Sister,” “Hurricane,” or “Sara,” and it’s hard to not be affected in some way that changes you as a human being.

Cory Chisel’s new album, Old Believers, is one of the first albums this year that has affected me like this. There is no easy way out: you must listen to each song to believe its power and honest messages. And it begins quickly, with a prologue titled “This Is How It Goes.” From the start, nothing is what it seems. By the end, you’ll know exactly how you feel.

This is why Cory Chisel is an important songwriter: he still realizes that a full, realized collection of songs carries more weight than a fleeting $0.99 download on iTunes.

I recently talked to Chisel about Old Believers, songwriting, the hilarity of genre labeling, and the magic of recording.

So, I hear you’re in Nashville now.

I’m actually right now sitting around boxes in Chicago, getting ready to move down there. We’ve been working on making this move for a while, and we’ve kind of just had to bite the bullet and take the time to do it.

Were you living in Wisconsin before?

Yeah, I lived in Wisconsin for 22 years, or something like that, and I loved every second of living there, but it’s just not realistic anymore with how much we travel, and trying to get back up there. Just spending so much time behind the wheel to even get home, to where home was, and we were just like, “we need a bed somewhere to where we can actually get to it.”

And Nashville — I’m assuming the music scene is attractive.

Well, that’s it. The music scene has really migrated to Nashville overall. The wealth of people making art that’s really inspiring, affordable places to live. And the town really wants musicians there, so it’s just convenient to live there. In some places, it’s hard to qualify for rent, because people just aren’t familiar with the job (of being a musician). But in Nashville, it’s open arms.

And now is a good time for sure, because the album is coming out.

Yeah, and our whole team and label is based down in Nashville, so it’s a whole cohesive move.

I saw you at Bonnaroo last year.

Oh yeah, that was fun. I can’t believe that was a year ago already! (laughs)

I caught you a couple times, actually — you guys seemed to be playing everywhere.

It was great. It was like summer camp for the misfits of musicians. It’s a great scene, but you almost need a vacation after the vacation of Bonnaroo.

I remember your first set there — you played one of the new songs, “Never Meant To Love You” — and I could just feel people responding to that song. Did you feel that, too?

Yeah, I think that’s the one where, overall, night in and night out, that if we’re battling at all with the set, with connecting to the audience, that one seems to unify all of our energies. As a live performer you’ve got to find those songs — a thing like Bonnaroo, or anywhere we play — there’s a mix of hipsters and mill workers and everyone coming from a different background and sort of judging what they think you’re about, and you’re judging what they’re all about, and sometimes getting together around a certain song, where it’s like, “okay, this is probably something we’ve all experienced, to a certain degree.” It’s good to have a song for that — to come together and go from there.

I saw you play at LouFest too, in 2010, and I think you played it there, too. Has that one been around for a while?

I think it almost made the last record, actually. It just wasn’t quite done. And the song originally started with something like fourteen verses — some songs you have to desperately fill the last few lines, but this is a song that could have went on for like fifteen minutes. So, we thought…we knew it was good, so we had to go through the process of hacking the limbs off.

It has a Bob Dylan feel to it, like something he wrote for Desire, like “Joey.”

I wrote it impersonating Bob Dylan, actually — that’s how the song started. As a writer, if you get his cadence down, and the way that his rhyme scheme sort of works, you can start to unlock keys in how to write in ways that leverage lines the way that he does. And that’s why there were all those verses, because it started as an exercise of like, going through all the different eras of Dylan, like, “this is how you would sing it in ’67 or whatever.” And we actually ended in the Desire era when we wrote that song, so that’s one reason I think it reminds you of that.

I think your songwriting is just so strong, that carries a lot of these songs. Do you put a lot in to writing lyrics, and what do lyrics mean to you?

Well, that’s the portion of it that I watch the most closely. I’ve been really into the craft of songwriting as opposed to…some songwriting is about mood, it’s about fashion, it’s about all these things, you know? It’s about some statement about what’s modern and what’s hip, and I’ve always been fascinated by storytellers…you know, I don’t think we’re going to blow anyone’s doors off with this innovation and this stylistic approach that we have, and honestly, I could give two shits about that. All I’m trying to really do is to add to the Great American Songbook that stretches back to hymns and folk and even punk rock. That’s just what I dig out of songs.

You know, that totally makes sense. And I feel that some people just don’t have the patience to listen, and I wish they would just take the time to listen to words. Do you ever get that feeling?

Well, it’s tough to feel…even in the landscape of Bonnaroo or something. The landscape of music is changing. We walk into these festivals, and we’re asking people to listen to 45 minutes to an hour of these stories that we’re trying to spin. And electronica music is huge, where there’s no story whatsoever, and people just want to move with rhythms and beats. And there’s so many things vying for people’s attention that we feel like a Polaroid camera in a digital age. We’re not going to become obsolete, but I think we’re going by the way of jazz a little bit — we won’t disappear, but we have a very loyal type of listener that buys our records that we’re really grateful for.

Like you said, the listener will know the strengths of these songs. And I took to these right away…and a lot of people are going hit play and they’re going to wonder why they’re hearing Adriel’s (Denae) voice instead of yours on the opening “This Is How It Goes.” Why did you decide to lead off with that one?

Well, a couple of reasons. One, I like Adriel’s voice more than I like mine. And, I would be lying that I wasn’t having a laugh about it. I enjoy the fact that people are going to take the plastic off a new Cory Chisel record and for the first few minutes, you’re not even on the record. (laughing)

But mainly, it acts as sort of a preface to the album…what she has to say…even the title of the song, “This Is How It Goes,” it sets up beautifully of a story that she’s trying to walk people through, you know? And, the fact that people might take a second and go, “what?” to tune in is what you really want. We could blast them over the head with the single like we did with the last record, but it’s our sophomore record, and in order to do something interesting, it needed to interest us. We tried to put the song other places on the record, but we just kept coming back to it and said, “I think that’s the first song.”

I think it works. I stopped for a minute and it made me think.

We’re trying to say something; we’re assuming the listeners can hang with the opening not being so obvious. We trust that our listeners will have fun with it like we did, because we did. We laughed many times that the first song on our record is the one I’m not even on.

How long have you been working with Adriel now?

We’ve been working together for I’d say about six or seven years now. It’s one of those relationships and friendships, that from the very moment I heard her sing, everything changed for me. I knew it was the missing component — that what I was trying to communicate was in her voice. The first time we had a chance to sing together, the line I was singing ultimately meant three times more when she sort of joined it. I like the contrast of the feminine and masculine (voices) delivering the song, and it not being so one-sided. There’s a lot of singer-songwriters out there, and a lot of dudes with acoustic guitars, and I think it makes it more interesting to me.

It’s meant to be.

Yeah. It’s a pretty great feeling to come across someone like that. It’s a cool feeling.

You know, there’s a lot of moments on this album — like the one on “Seventeen” — where the song just blossoms when you sing “There’s still more water in the well.” I love it when a song just becomes something larger or so much more beautiful by just one line. Do you feel that?

Well, that’s what we’re trying to accomplish with the line. There are a lot of lyricists that I really admire, and I was admittedly borrowing from the lyricist from The National. He has a way to do this with his poetry, too — the story is going along, and you’re being entertained to some degree, but then really finding the right placement for when to kick into that portion of the message, and the song really takes a right turn and changes at that point. Yeah, I can appreciate that stuff, and you hope that people are even going to get to listen to that part in the song. (laughs)

That’s interesting, because I was going to ask — is there a challenge there for you to wonder, “well, I hope people don’t get bored and stop listening.”

I don’t mean to be typical in the sense that I’m trying to be elusive for no reason, but how good would a novel be if they gave you the entire plot on the first chapter? These are not novels by any means, but I think a lot about pacing and development, and I care a lot about the characters in these songs. Whether they are made up or not, I want them to have an evolution.

When you’re recording something like that, do you know the moment when something is supposed to happen?

No. Actually, the lyric for that song was not “There’s still more water in the well.” It was actually, “There’s no more water in the well.” Which, you know, changing it even that much, it really changes the direction of where it goes. And I think that as the band was humming along, and we hit the break for where that line was supposed to come, it was still supposed to be “There’s no more water in the well,” where, as you can imagine, the song would become more somber.

As things are and as songs are living, I just didn’t think that that was their story, I just didn’t think that that was the message, and it’s just cool when something like that clicks, and you change the phrase on the spot, and the song blooms into this almost helpful message to see yourself through these characters. I look at it like you’re watching a movie and there’s two characters, and for all intensive purposes, they seem really down, but the outside looker-on can see a bright future.

Those things just happen on the fly, and they’re really the most goose-bump moments in the studio. It’s almost like you have this weird sense that you’re channeling something — that’s it’s not all over, there’s still much more to be told. And at that point, you’re just trying to keep up with the emotions hovering over you, and the band is humming, and everything is riding on the take — and we’re big on having one take and keeping it. And those are my favorite records to listen to.

Well, on Old Believers, there are so many styles, so many different genres it could fit into. I could not tell anybody that this is a rock record, or country record, or soul record. How would you begin to describe what kind of music it is? For you being a musician, is that difficult to be so many things?

Well, what you’re hearing is the influences that we have inside as people, the elements of the blues that have soaked into our experience, the elements of country, the elements of reggae music — we reference reggae music all the time on this record, especially vocally. which a lot of people in a million years would never put together. You’re trying to sort of boil down all these parts of yourself.

I’ve always respected artists like Elvis Costello and Tom Waits, where you don’t talk about what style of music they are, you just say their name. I mean, who talks about what style of music Tom Waits is? You just talk about Tom Waits. You just trust his taste, and you just kind of go on whatever ride he’s on. He puts out…half the time, it almost sounds like rap records and piano ballads — you let him break your heart, you let him cheer you up, you let him take you to the bottom, you spend time with him.

And that’s what we’re asking our listeners to do, is just go on the ride with us and not worry about…like the idea if you’re a fan of Mumford & Sons, that you’re going to like our record. I get more out of when people come and tell me that they really only like Johnny Cash and The Clash, but they really like our records. I don’t think music used to be so defined like we now identify with genres — like we didn’t worry about if George Harrison was writing a country record or whatever. You just hit play and enjoy it, you know?

Or a Neil Young record, or something like that.

Yeah — like what’s a Neil Young record? Is Harvest a rock record? I don’t know, you know?

I get so frustrated sometimes, though, because people always want to label something. And I’m not a musician, but I can imagine it can get frustrating for you…

Well, it’s frustrating for every musician, and if you want to see more eye-rolling than ever, when someone prints, “singer-songwriter Cory Chisel,” “acoustic, folkie Cory Chisel,” like, why do you even have to add that? Who even cares? We don’t speak about that.

When I talk about a band or Elliott Smith, no artist would speak to each other like trying to sum him up as some sort of genre. And I understand it happens, I understand its function — and I don’t want to sound like I’m attacking journalists, but sometimes it’s just lazy journalism, to be honest. They just want to shove it off somewhere, or maybe they don’t like my record that much, so they just say “folk record,” or something.

Yeah. And the first song that came out on this record was “I’ve Been Accused,” and it holds up on its own just fine, but I still think this is a record that you need to listen to from start to finish.

If you just listened to that song, you wouldn’t get a good idea of what the record is. And that’s the bitch that we all have about singles — the other song we thought about having as a single was “Laura,” which is completely opposite. And if we released that by itself, nobody would have an idea of what the record sounded like either. So, it’s a necessary thing that you have to do to service radio, but we would love for you to complete the whole journey with us if you’ve got the 45 minutes to spend.

The other song you just mentioned, “Laura” — one of my friends said that it reminded her of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven.”

Yeah, well, there’s a weird element of 80’s nostalgia in that song, and I felt like using it because…that’s where I’m from. I don’t think it’s always accurate to just use some 60’s…to give something raw and honest — who cares if it sings something along those lines? Like, when Graham Nash was writing “Our House,” … a really earnest and sincere song is always riding the line of being cheesy or heartbreaking. You’ve got to not be scared to wind up on either side of the coin, and let the song write itself.

How do you separate something from cheesy and emotional? I could list so many songs…

What I love…I think you can detect a sincerity in a voice that you’ll let somebody get away with saying something that you wouldn’t otherwise. Like Bruce Springsteen — you should write out the words to “Thunder Road” once and have a quick read over those, and there are parts of it that will read, “what, is this the diary of a thirteen year old?”

But, isn’t that the age where you’re free like that, when you want to jump in a car and you see the door open, and you tear off down a gravel road? Or is that a cheesy movie like The Notebook or something? Yeah, but it’s also a sincere place to be. I wrote “Laura” in a really honest place; it’s actually one of the truer songs on the record, based on not my life but a friend’s, and we thought of it as a guy writing his most intimate thoughts where you’re like, “I’m going to lower my guard and not going to worry about being cool.” And you say something like, “two hearts forever, let’s stay together.” Whereas, if I was worried about Pitchfork magazine, you might not want to say that, but I could give two shits. (laughing)

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