Texas music has gone through so many iterations over the years that a sense of belonging doesn’t always shine through in a song or album. But that’s not true for the country artist’s music Carson McHone.
In McHone’s latest album, “Still lifehis Texas roots shine through (even though McHone now splits his time between Austin and Ontario, Canada.) And it’s a departure from his previous recording, “Carousel,” which was described by critics as dark and evocative.
Texas Standard spoke with McHone about what inspired “Still Life,” the role of the pandemic in his work, and his collaboration with producer Daniel Romano. Listen to the interview in the audio player above or read the transcript below.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Texas Standard: What were you thinking when you started making this new album?
Carson McHone: For this particular one, I mean, these songs were kind of written between tours, in those little slices of time where I found myself taking a slight break when I could sort of reflect. And, you know, I kind of wrote these songs in isolation, which was, like, my only chance to have space in my head when I wasn’t on the road, still in company of others, on tour.
And then in the same way, when I went to make the record, to record these songs, I was in isolation because of the pandemic. But it certainly wasn’t my intention to do something that sounded particularly different. It was just part of the process.
You incorporated a lot of different instruments here: accordion, piano, synth, saxophone. Looks like you’ve had time to spread your wings a bit.
Yeah. I think the tour I did right before it all shut down was really liberating for me. I was playing sets that they almost felt aggressive, you know? And I felt like I had never really performed that way before. I think I had kind of leaned into that feeling of tension and restraint and then bringing those songs to life for the record with Daniel Romano, who produced the record and also played a lot of those instruments with me , we were, together, able to capture that.
To what extent was it because it was a change of location? You recorded that in Ontario, didn’t you?
Yes I did it. For example, there were a few songs that I had demoed in Texas before taking them to Ontario, to Daniel, to play with him, that were really stripped down, very minimal. And I felt like that’s how I felt when I wrote that song, but I could never play it like that. How do I make it something I can wear night after night, which was really weighing on me I think too.
I had toured a lot and carried a lot of songs that I felt like I was done wearing, that I was done being a part of, emotionally. So with these new songs, I had that in mind.
You mentioned Daniel Romano, and he’s been described as the kind of musician who makes country music for people who don’t like modern country music.
We exercise a lot of different styles when we’re creating, and no matter what you’re in, I think he can move fluidly through those different styles. And people have – there’s something there that people always cling to, whether or not they thought they’d like that kind of music or not.
And the music that Daniel and I shared together before we made this record was, I mean, I don’t think it was country. I was listening to Randy Newman, Scott Walker and Bob Dylan, and there’s rock and roll, there’s a folk influence and there’s an immediacy to it all.
I’d like to think that people still recognize some type of voice coming from me. I mean, I use language that comes naturally to me, and I hope people recognize my character, people who knew me. But I pay attention to what is hidden behind these songs that we love. It’s almost the subtleties that end up raising a guitar hit, like, the shaker that becomes monumental in the sound of a song, you know? You didn’t even notice – Oh, that was it! It just, like, filled in something here that gave, or even [gave the song] space out. But there is always a rawness to something that is filled.
Earlier you were talking about the spaces and places “in between”, then there is a lyric that says, “I’m stuck here in a still life, but I’m still alive”. Is this the pandemic talking? What is happening here?
No, it was already written. And I think that plays out on a lot of different levels. Not all of these stories are mine. I’ve had suicide and dementia and in my family, and that mental awareness, or lack thereof, that can make things hard to get through. And when you grasp something and feel like you’ve finally got it, that’s it, and how do you move forward with that?
I think that’s kind of the moment this record is trying to communicate, is it kind of a brief suspension where you have that perspective and what are you going to do with it? And in that way, I think it’s hopeful, even if there’s desperation in those lyrics, or some of them. But I think the simple fact that this moment can exist and that we have captured it on a record is hopeful in itself. Creation has taken place. I did something with it.