"American Gothic" an exclusive interview
by Illustrate Magazine
“Dark Americana 2: Mojave”, the second installment in a series about America gone wrong, is Stuart Pearson’s most recent album release. Compared to the previous album (“Dark Americana: Stories and Songs”), it is steeped in more contemporary Americana, but it still contains folk song whispers and warnings from a century ago. There are hints of Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, and Tom Waits mixed in with ghosts of the 1800’s. These songs about bad choices, bad people and bad outcomes are murder ballads. “Dark Americana: Stories and Songs” was previously released by Hollywood Trax and Manhattan Production Music. The American Mythos of Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper are combined in this collection to create ominous and dark imagery. It’s jam-packed with wistful fiddle, banjo, dulcimer and tremelo guitar. An ominous baritone is framed by clanging metal and footstomps in a psychedelic mashup of bluegrass, country folk, film noir ballads. A rusty sound that is haunted and unsettling. Following “Mojave”, and “Stories and Songs”, the single “Devil Whammy” was released on July 29th across all streaming services. This is the third single from what will be his third Dark Americana album, tentatively called “American Gothic”. A powerful “4 on the floor” beat, pedal steel guitar, a low, deep voice and straightforward, memorable hook combine to vaguely remind you of the Velvet Underground. Of course, it’s a dance song about the devil possessing someone! Check out the single “Devil Whammy:” and the exclusive interview below:
1. I know you’re working on your new album “Dark Americana: American Gothic” right now. Your last two albums have been titled “Dark Americana: Stories and Songs” and “Dark Americana: Mojave”. What is “Dark Americana”?
STUART PEARSON: Dark Americana is sort of the dark side of the American Dream. It sits somewhere between evil and less evil. There usually is a murder somewhere and every day is Halloween. Lots of talk about graves and drinking. It’s well-meaning ghouls that live in your steamer trunk at the edge of your bed. It’s that weird sensation that something just brushed against you, but nothing is there. Think of Willie Nelson as a Chuckey doll. Or Johnny Cash as… well, Johnny Cash.
2. Your new song “3 Feet From A Vein (Seldom Seen Slim)” is being released on all streaming services on September 9th. What can you tell us about it?
STUART PEARSON: It’s the latest track from “American Gothic”. “3 Feet From A Vein” is loosely based on a real life character named Seldom Seen Slim, who was a legendary prospector in Nevada. He lived alone in a ghost town for 50 years, digging in the abandoned silver mine in Ballarat. He would drive 30 miles for supplies once a month - water, gas for his car, food and tobacco. He bathed a couple times a year and loved his life. There is something oddly inspirational about him; he made this choice of extreme solitude you and I would find unacceptable. The song is about the moment when he passes to the next world, with angels at his bedside. The song gives you a good idea of how American Gothic will sound – slightly drugged, slightly supernatural.
3. The first album “Stories and Songs” had an almost lysergic-country flavor to it. Your last album “Mojave” was more modern sounding and seemed focused on the decay and menace in the desert towns of California. Is “American Gothic” going to be more of the same? So far you have released “Where Are You”, “Devil Whammy” and “We Are The Falling Rain” from American Gothic and they’re all quite different from each other. Is there any theme to the new album?
STUART PEARSON: Well, yes, there is a theme, I guess you could call it “America Under a full Moon”, although it keeps morphing on me as it develops. The USA is going nuts. Quickly. At first I was going to approach that by creating an album of carnival songs and the people who live and work in traveling carnivals/circuses. That’s how “Where Are You” came to be. It has a creepy caliope in the middle of a truly disturbing lyric written by my wife and partner Hunter Lowry. It started as a horn-driven staccato waltz thing, like that old Screaming Jay Hawkins song “I Put A Spell On You”, then Hunter had me pull out the drums and horns and boom! The song was done. Then “We Are The Falling Rain” came out of an old idea I had from 6 or 7 years ago and a really pugnacious lyric fell out of me about America’s gullible, angry underbelly. It has some great fiddle played by Dan Hamilton in Nashville. He really makes the song soar. Unfortunately, the version I released was a little half-baked, so the final version on the album will sound quite different. Then “Devil Whammy” came out of nowhere. Hunter said something about something and when she uttered the phrase “double whammy”, I thought she said “Devil Whammy” and the thing was written in about 20 minutes (which kind of shows). It’s dopey, but it likes being dopey. It’s nice to do something a little light-hearted for a change, even though it’s about dancing with the devil.
4. What’s your view on the role and function of music as political, cultural, spiritual, and/or social vehicles – and do you try and affront any of these themes in your work, or are you purely interested in music as an expression of technical artistry, personal narrative and entertainment?
STUART PEARSON: Music hits the Lizard Brain in our heads, so it seeps into everything we do. It touches politics because music at its heart is a used car salesperson. It connives you to raise your fists, dance with a stranger, or promise you’ll never do…*that* … again (you’ll need to fill in that blank yourself). Culture always has music twisted around it, so does religion. I think music may be the primal force of society – different animals make sounds, chirps, barks to communicate. With humans, even though we can form words (not sure if that’s a good thing) we still choose to bond through music. It’s the true universal blood type.
Music is like a painting. It can be decorative, or it can be something moving. There’s nothing really wrong with either choice. There are songs you’d like to display over your fireplace and there are songs you want to use like a weapon. It’s up to the listener, who then becomes the ultimate musician. A pipe is only useful when you have someone plumbing with it. If a yodeler falls in the forest, does he make a sound if no one is there to hear it?
One of our cats cries and whines when I don’t let him in my studio. At first it will be a standard cat cry. Then he starts to make musical cries – the cries go up and down in pitch, all different variations until I finally give up and let him in. It’s intentional; he’s “working the room”. It’s fascinating to witness cat evolution in real time.
5. Do you feel that your music is giving you back just as much fulfilment as the amount of work you are putting into it, or are you expecting something more, or different in the future?
STUART PEARSON: If you are making music for the sole purpose of getting something back from it, you should pursue an exciting career in fast food management. Writers have to write. Singers have to sing. Banjo players need to play banjo, regardless of the human toll. After the nuclear blast, the only things left will be a guitar player and cockroaches. And the cockroaches will constantly ask if the guitar player knows how to play “Hotel California”. So it’s not really about measuring what you get back from making music. Money is nice. But it’s about finishing a song and then looking around for the next one. THAT is the payoff.
6. Could you describe your creative processes? How do you usually start, and go about shaping ideas into a completed song? Do you usually start with a tune, a beat, or a narrative in your head? And do you collaborate with others in this process?
STUART PEARSON: My normal process is a little unusual. I think about the video I want to write a song about and take some mental notes. Then I think of a color I want to react to – I know that probably doesn’t make much sense. I’m visual – I sort of see colors when I hear or write music that moves me. Sometimes I’ll listen to a song and it goes to a place that makes me go “gaaaaah… that’s a shame” and I start to rewrite it. Then during the recording process whatever remnant of the original song disappears (hopefully).
My wife/partner Hunter is my collaborator. She started writing songs when we met. She has grown into a really good songwriter. I forced her into it when we started courting – I figured it was a way to keep her coming back! She doubts herself sometimes and then I quote some of her own terrific lyrics back to her. I guess all writers doubt themselves. She reminds me of when I started writing songs. Except it took me about 400 songs to finally write a good one. She did it after a few attempts!
7. For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and music maker, and the transition towards your own style, which is known as Dark Americana?
STUART PEARSON: Well, I have been writing songs since I was 12. I have a strange relationship to musical notes and chords. I had epilepsy as a kid and I think the medication I was on rewired my brain. A note can have a color to it. A chord can look like a rainbow or a bucket of swirling mud. I can see through it – it’s very transparent, but it’s there – sort of like a flavored seltzer. So when I started banging on the family piano, it was a little psychedelic experience for me. Fortunately, chords looked very pretty to me, otherwise I could have become a Stockhausen. Actually, that could have been great. Damn. Oh well.
Once I moved to California from New York, I started writing more seriously and tried to find different concepts to write about, instead of just love songs. Most people don’t know this, but there are only three people writing love songs in the world today. And they’re very, VERY busy.
I didn’t know it at the time, but back in 1996 I had a band called “Through the Woods” that was playing Dark Americana music. We were odd – the band had 4 or 5 members (that kept changing) and we played 19 instruments on stage. We were a modern alt-folk thing, but my lyrics would get pretty unconventional. Serial killers, carnival people, murder-y things.
Years after TTW broke up I started looking for a new direction. I released a hard rock/punkish album, I recreated 1968 and 1983 radio broadcasts, I wrote and staged an improv musical in Los Angeles (a very brief run – what a fast way to lose money!) and I didn’t really feel like I found my home base through it all. Then Manhattan Production Music/ Hollywood Trax asked me to write an album of Dark Americana music after hearing my song “Rise and Fall” (it’s on the “Stories and Songs” album) and things clicked. So I have come full circle with the Dark Americana series.
8. So is “American Gothic” a summation of your journey through Dark Americana? Is this the last of the series? What will you release next?
STUART PEARSON: I don’t think it will be the end of the Dark Americana series, although things usually work in “threes” in nature. Three Little Pigs, Three Stooges, three dots after using the word “etc”… I’ll need to see how complete “American Gothic” feels – if there’s anything left to say. It gets dark in places – even for me. There will be some western goth stuff, some feedback, some clanging guitars, all mashed together with accordion, banjo, dulcimer. I may use my toy monkey drummer on a track. He used to be my drummer when I played coffee houses in Southern California. The damn thing still works after at least 500 performances! Carlos is a trooper.
I’m planning on releasing a new song from American Gothic every 4-6 weeks until it’s finished. If anyone is interested, they can follow the progress on my website www.stuartpearsonmusic.com. I update it whenever a new song is getting worked on. The next release will probably be “Miracle Water”, about an American preacher with a merch line. Although it might be “Runaway Girl” which is something I just started two days ago. There is a song called “Coming Together (While Falling Apart) which is simultaneously in three keys and three time signatures – it sounds confusing, I know. It IS confusing. But it works.
9. What has been the most difficult thing you’ve had to endure in your life or music career so far?
STUART PEARSON: Reminding myself that success is measured by how you feel about the work you produce – not the actual result of that work. Knowing that at some point in the future, I will have written my last song. I probably won’t know it’s my last song at the time. Wouldn’t it be awful if you KNEW a song was the last one you would ever write? Jeebus Crepes, that would be heartbreaking.
10. On the contrary, what would you consider a successful, proud or significant point in your life or music career so far?
STUART PEARSON: I think I’m proudest about the fact that even after all these years, I keep making music. And it seems to get better and more adventurous. At least to me. No one throws rotten vegetables at me anymore, so that’s a good sign.
By the way, speaking of flavored seltzer – Hunter read a comment somewhere that described it as “drinking television static while someone next door yells the name of a fruit”. I love that.
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