INTERVIEW: Warren Byrom on identity, composition, and robbing banks!

Picture credit: Andrew Brinkhorst

Warren Byrom makes some of the chillest music coming out of Lexington, KY, the sort that would fit well with the one and only Tender Mercy, albeit a bit less stripped down. There is a quiet calm here that evokes a feeling of comfort and ease, and one that Byrom plays with admirably in his largely acoustic driven work. Tomorrow sees the release of Heavy Makes You Happy, but you can catch an early preview tonight at Zanzabar alongside New Mother Nature and Idiot Glee. In the meantime you can listen to his last album, The Fabled Canelands, below. We caught up with Byrom to ask about identity, his new album, and Chris Gaines!

Never Nervous: How’d you get your start? What was the first instrument you picked up and why? Was music always part of your life growing up?

Warren Byrom: My first instrument must have been my ear. I remember being 3 or 4 sitting on the couch with my hand cupped over it just listening to the blood rushing through it and making wah-wah sounds.

NN: Tell us a little about your musical resume. Did you start with solo work or have you worked collaboratively?

WB: The solo stuff has been more recent. I played a lot of trumpet and guitar and some fiddle with various bands over the years. Opal Fly, Altered Statesman, Lissa Driscoll’s band when I lived in Nola. Lots of friends’ projects. Chris Sullivan and I started a band called The Swells around 2000, which was a catch all for whatever we happened to be into. Sort of a garage take on the american songbook, where we’d do anything from Sydney Bechet to Sly Stone. We’d do some of our own songs too. Lately I’ve been focusing on writing and recording under my name and Fabled Canelands and I’ve got the new record coming out August 12th. We have the release shows next Thursday at Zanzabar and Saturday at Al’s in Lex. Then I’ll be doing a solo tour up the east coast the second half of August and into September.

NN: How do you parse your identity between Warren Byrom the musician (and therefore public personality) and the private you? How much is your stage persona an aspect of your person?

“I love the communion of a good show, how a lot of emotion and perspective gets distilled down and shared in that moment.”

WB: The two are a lot closer to being the same at this point. I get more adrenalized when I’m performing, probably more expressive than the private me. I love the communion of a good show, how a lot of emotion and perspective gets distilled down and shared in that moment.

NN: What are the difficulties involved in solo work as opposed to more collaborative projects? What are the positives?

WB: Performing solo? It can be a challenge because I get used to the synergy of the band, feeding off of each other, and just how good it sounds. But sometimes I can find more space in the songs that way, and try out different versions that I’d have to rehearse with the band.  It can be more intimate, more immediate to perform solo, but more difficult. There’s not as much chance for the happy accidents and I miss the harmonies. I think the same goes for writing.  I love beginning with a seed of an idea, just one line, and then feeding off each other for an hour and then there’s this thing you both sort of birthed into existence. Whitney Baker and I have had some great sessions like that.

NN: How do you write? Do you start with a lyrical or narrative idea and then compose music around that, or do you start with an instrument and build there? Get into it.

WB: I’d love to say that I get up every morning and hammer away at it in a very disciplined way, but I don’t. Mostly I just listen and I try to be open and alert everyday, to be ready when I’m visited by those little melodies or phrases. I take a lot of notes, and eventually some of them make their way into songs. It could be a simple phrase, like a chorus, that has so much packed into it that i’m unaware of, that slowly gets revealed over the process of working it out. I have a new one, Sleepy Beaver, that’s like that. Where it didn’t come into it’s own until I was playing it with the band.

“I’d love to say that I get up every morning and hammer away at it in a very disciplined way, but I don’t. Mostly I just listen and I try to be open and alert everyday, to be ready when I’m visited by those little melodies or phrases.”

NN: Speaking of, how did you assemble your backing band? How essential are they in the writing process? For example, when you compose do you think about what other instruments might sound good and work towards that, or is that all just icing on the cake?

WB: The band has sort of been a collective over the last few years, but we’ve been doing shows with the current lineup for about a year. Sam Meyer on drums, Chris on second guitar, Cecilia Miller on cello and vocals and Scott Wilmoth on bass. Honestly, I get really excited about every show I get to play with these guys, we sound pretty amazing together. That new song “Sleepy Beaver” is a good example of the band being integral to the creative process, in realizing what the song is trying to do. Get Real, off HMYH, is a good example of that as well. The slow build with Robby Cosenza’s drums, and the ambient stuff Tom Hnatow is playing really help create a tension that works with the narrative.  Robby and Tom factor supremely on this new record. And I’ll add that Tom’s playing on “Old Machine” is some seriously cosmic icing on an old piece of cake. Maybe carrot?

NN: What’s the best song you’ve written and why? How has it evolved over time to your mind?

WB: Ha! I’m not gonna lie, this question makes me think of that Tenacious D song. I don’t feel qualified to answer it anyway. Usually I really like singing the new ones, but as I find new ways to sing the old ones they become favorites again.

NN: What makes for a satisfying show and why? How do you gauge a good show on stage and what do you do change things if they aren’t going smooth?

WB: That sense of communion I mentioned earlier.  We played a show today at Eastern State Hospital, and it was one of the most engaging performances I’ve ever had the pleasure to be a part of; a captive audience, sure, but there was real recognition there on the part of the patients and very little reluctance to express it.

NN: Tell us about Heavy Makes You Happy. How does it compare to The Fabled Canelands and why?

WB: HMYH is more personal, more vulnerable.  It’s also more consistent as far as the production goes.

NN: How would you compare the scene in Lexington versus the scene in Louisville? What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses?

WB: There are thriving music scenes in Lexington and Louisville in terms of having lots of great bands, and people doing it themselves. I’m pretty excited about Cropped Out. And hopefully Boom Slang will be coming back.  One of my favorite shows just last week was part of the I cant drive 64 series… Louisville’s Howell Dawdy paired up with Lex’s Big Fresh, and Joel Pett.  Sometimes turnout at shows can be quite disappointing in both cities.  I’m not sure how you change that. The Harlan, Ky writer Robert Gipe said something recently like “we don’t need better writers, we need better readers.” This could apply to the music scene as well.

NN: If you had super powers would you use your abilities for altruistic purposes or would you just rob banks?

WB: I’d rob banks, but then I’d give it away altruistically. After pocketing my reasonable fee of course.

NN: Do you think that Garth Brooks thinks about Chris Gaines a lot? Do you think he misses him?

WB: I actually do think of Garth Brooks occasionally. I’m not sure why.

“I actually do think of Garth Brooks occasionally. I’m not sure why.”

NN: What non-musical things have you excited lately? Have you read, watched, eaten, or drank anything worth sharing about?

WB: I got really excited about Stranger Things, but then it was over. I’ve been pretty amazed by Flannery O’connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge. After my east coast tour I’ll be headed to Nova Scotia for a couple weeks to do some island exploring with my girlfriend. Lots of trees, boats and books and no cell phone. I’m very excited about that.

NN: Last but never least, what have you been listening to lately and why?

WB: I’ve been listening to Ted Lucas because he makes everything ok.  Hans Chew’s new record is pretty amazing. And Tim Maia’s Nobody Can Live Forever, a cool Brazilian soul record I picked up at the Al’s music swap last weekend.