Fred Eaglesmith’s Mechanical Music: A Q&A with the Yeoman Songwriter


Fred Eaglesmith is a gifted songwriter, having lived the hard-luck, farm-tending, truck-driving life described in his songs. Listen to his music and wander around the hearts and minds of some of the most intriguing characters ever put to tape. His career spans 21 albums and several decades. What follows is the transcription of an interview with Eaglesmith in mid 2017, following the release of his album, Standard.

Your latest release, Standard, has a classic narrative structure that's almost like a William Faulkner novel set to music. Talk to me a bit about that and those characters.

I was trying to write about those people. As opposed to when I was younger, when I would just make things sad because I had been raised so sad myself, I was trying to give them more hope than I had put into some of my other work. They're like all of us who get in these situations -- they don't realize how bad it was. When I tell stories about my childhood, people go, holy cow! I never thought it was that bad. As a matter of fact, if we knew it was going to be that bad, we'd be horrified. Looking back, we're a little horrified.

I was telling my kids today about how my father used to go to the auction sale to buy things just so he could split them up into smaller lots and sell them back the next day at the same auction, just to make some money for groceries. It that time, we didn't think it was anything. We sort of laughed about it.

Is it fair to say that a lot of the things you're writing about are things that you've gone through?

Well, I'm a pretty experienced person. I've just realized this in the last decade or so. I've experienced a lot more than most people my age. I just didn't know. Everybody worked hard, but I was that guy who was in a family that lost the farm. I got out and hopped freight trains. I never even thought about how not everybody did this. And I've heard harder-luck stories than mine by a long shot, that's for sure.

Regarding Standard and 6 Volts, they both sound like they were recorded in the places where the songs take place. It's like you can hear the rooms and the land. How did you capture that sound?

I record with a lot of adversity. I record the old way. Some people record digital, and some people record analog. I record mechanically. I build things. I stick my microphones in the furnace. I use things that you're not supposed to use. There's dust all over my stuff. I have a coal cellar and most of our amps and stuff are in the coal cellar. It's full of dirt.

I think music should sound like what it's about. I think that's always the believable thing. Modern recording doesn't do that. I think that since 2001, there's no more music sounding like anything. It's just mass-produced now. ... Jimi Hendrix said a song is only as good as the present era.

What has the reaction been to Standard?

When we put this record out, I just held my breath. I've done this before and have just gotten chastised horribly for it. My record “Dusty,” the reaction was that the record was too cheesy. Too cheesy? What's too cheesy? Boney M. is too cheesy. Captain & Tennille is too cheesy -- and even that's debatable. Cheese is what we loved about so much stuff. All of a sudden there's this cheese line.

I took it on the chin for that record badly. I lost half my fans over that record. I remember one girl gave me trouble about it and then about three days later, she told me, "My father died and I put on that record, and all of a sudden, I got it totally. I understood it perfectly."

It's hard to have your antenna up for what we even really feel and really think. That's hard for us all. I'm glad when there's a discussion about my records, because then I've done my job. Not everybody is going to get it. I don't always get it right away when I write them or record them. It's discovery for me as well.

Your sound has shifted toward electronic music. What led you in that direction?

The songs. It took me two years to make this record. I had my band come in and we had to do a lot of editing. A lot of recording the way the Beatles did -- slowing it down, making it faster. This record sounds so simple, and it was such a hard record to make. This record was impossibly hard to work on, and thank goodness for my wife (Tif Ginn). My wife came down one day and sort of hip checked me out from behind the board, and she really had never worked a board much before, and she just started moving knobs and dials, and immediately it got very cohesive.

She really had a bead, and she has courage. She's very brave. She would say things like, "No, we're leaving that fiddle out of tune." Or, "No, that vocal is the way it should be. It's not a good vocal. But it's a great vocal."

It's hard to work on your own stuff, and she just sort of took over and was 50 percent of the project. By the time she was finished mixing it, it was much more than just mixing it. It was earth-shattering decisions.

How would you say your sound has evolved over your career?

The sound has become much closer to me. Everything that I feel in my heart is going on the record. I can listen to old records and go, I thought this was better or I thought this was different. When I listen to the records that I've sort of had a big hand in, I like them better because they feel like me. So I think that's the change in the sound: less input from outside sources.

I've put out 21 albums. As time goes, first you can't drive the tractor. Next thing you know, you own the farm. I know how to make a record and I know how not to make a record, which is the best thing to know. You put it on, and you can't ignore it. You may hate it, but you can't ignore it. And man, that's that's a hard thing to do.

I love the mechanics of not just turning a knob to get a reverb, but dropping the amplifier into the cistern and recording it picking up the sound on the other end. Anybody can make a record as good as me, but it's hard to make a record as bad as me.

The vocal track on Flames is beautifully haunting. Was that your wife’s decision or yours?

I was in our basement down in the studio. It was really early in the morning. I had been working all night and I just couldn't get that song right. I had written and recorded it as a bluegrass song. I just got this old ribbon microphone from the '40s and I just yelled at that microphone. She was sleeping, and she woke up and came down and I played it for her, and she said, "That's crazy. And that's it."

"Twin City Mini: Nice tin, good rubber. Stored it in the barn for 29 years." Where did that come from?

I stole it out of a classified ad when I was in my 20s. I actually stole the whole thing.

You've been hanging onto it for 40 years?

Laughs. I love vernacular, and it's so beautiful. It's about a tractor: the Minneapolis-Moline. The whole thing is written in code. The guy wrote his classified ad in code. The guy is so into his world, he didn't understand his classified ad was basically ineffective to anybody but the people who know what a Twin City Mini was.

When you read it, did you know what it was?

I knew exactly what it was. I was just floored. I love those kinds of things: people speaking in code and they don't even know they are.

When I was a kid, I used to play the Royal Winter Fair in Canada here. It's a big international farmers fair. I used to have all of these songs that were written in code because I was raised a farmer. I just knew, you drill the seed. A guy who doesn't know you drill the seed doesn't know you're talking about a seed drill, right? I wrote all of those songs with all that code in it, naturally.

And my father spoke code -- spoke farmer code. Those farmers would come to see me at the Royal Winter Fair and they would always say to my side guys, "He knows what he's talking about." That only comes through a whole bunch of experience. They're like languages. I could probably get a government grant to study this in Canada.

My father was the best because he was Christian so he wouldn't swear, but he would skirt it the whole time. He would say things like, "Shut the front door," or "son of a pup." His whole life was this kind of talk. Before he'd say something to you, he'd say, "Now I don't mind telling you, I don't mind telling you." What a great thing for me to get raised with.

What does your songwriting process look like?

Endless writing. All the time. Always, always, always. I was up at 4:30 this morning writing songs the same way I was up at 4:30 in the morning or 3 o'clock in the morning when I was 14, but back then I hadn't gone to bed yet. And I'm still doing it -- and I'm doing it all the time. It never ends for me.

I'll fix things over time. It might take 10 years. When I was younger, I used to edit on the go. Now I write it down and edit later or edit when I sing it, or don't go back to it for four years, and then go, oh I know what this song was about. I know how I can write this song.

How has your live show evolved with time?

There are songs right now that I would not sing that I could sing in the '90s. I'm not the same person and my audience are not the same people. I always get requests for songs like White Trash. I just wouldn't sing that song anymore. It's not relevant anymore because when I was writing it, that whole concept of white trash was new. It was a really funny, tongue-in-cheek thing. Within in a decade, it was like the whole world was adhering to being white trash. And I did not want that.

There was a whole bunch of us in Nashville in the '90s writing for this company called Blue Water. We were writing rednecky, anti-preciousness songs. We were writing songs about guns and living on the edge of town. The guy who owned the company loved these kinds of songs, and he was pitching them to country. And wouldn't you know, 10 years later, country is putting out songs like John Deere Green. They were taking our mojo and they turned it into new country music. I regret to this day ever introducing it because I never meant it to be this. It was always tongue-in-cheek. It was always satire.

My father was a farmer. We lived on a gravel road. He would be ashamed to be called a redneck. That would be a deep insult to him. We were not rednecks. We were progressive people, we just happened to be on a farm.

My wife and I are doing the show just with the two of us now, and we try to keep it as positive as we can, which is so not what I would have done 15 years ago. The reason is because the world is a dark place for a lot of people. We are always preaching about rock and roll and how that was the thing that will save us, much more than Jesus ever will. Rock and roll almost did save the world in the '60s. It gives people a place to go, and that's what people are looking for in the present day -- a place to go.