Not all the good guys wear hats. — Stephen King
The preceding quote is not from The Stand, Carrie, Salem’s Lot or any other of the American horror novelist’s roughly 734 novels, novellas and short stories. Rather, those words come from a rather unlikely source: the liner notes of Austin, Texas, songwriter Slaid Cleaves’ latest album, Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away.
The follow-up to Wishbones — which most consider to be the Maine-born singer’s breakthrough effort — Everything You Love was a full five years in the making. But as King himself would no doubt attest, it was more than worth the wait.
As its title suggests, the record is an often solemn affair, primarily dealing with themes of life, loss and, of course, death. Cleaves took significant inspiration from tombstone inscriptions found in a graveyard near his Austin home. But his latest never feels unduly morose or saddled by such weighty subject matter. Like the man who penned what is essentially the album’s foreward, Slaid Cleaves is a master storyteller. And he approaches even the most funereal tales with uncommon grace, insight and unwavering honesty.
In advance of his upcoming performance in Tunbridge, Seven Days recently spoke with Cleaves by phone from his home in Austin.
SEVEN DAYS: So, I have to ask, how did you get Stephen King to write the liner notes for the new album?
SLAID CLEAVES: It was just a very cute little stroke of luck. He had heard me on XM Radio, about five years ago, when the Wishbones record came out, and became a fan. He showed up at a festival in Maine in 2004 and came to the CD booth and introduced … well, he didn’t have to introduce himself. He bought a couple of CDs and told us how much of a fan he was and was very gracious. Just before he left he said, “You know. If you ever want liner notes, give me a call.” And he dropped his email on us, and five years later, I took him up on it. He put that thing together in a flash.
SD: That’s awesome. And it’s kind of morbidly appropriate, given the running themes of death and loss throughout the album, no?
SC: Yeah! It’s, um … I never thought of my music as having a lot to do with Stephen King. But it does kind of make sense, doesn’t it?
SD: I think so. Now, are you as big a fan of him as he seems to be of you?
SC: [Chuckling] My wife is a super fan. And I’ve actually never read any of his stuff. I’m more of an egghead pseudo-intellectual, trying to get through War and Peace and stuff like that. Not so much Stephen King. But someday I’ll read some.
SD: Right on. Not to pound the morbidity angle into the ground, but I was curious about the cemetery by your house. That played a big part in creating the album, right?
SC: Yeah. It sure did. I started jogging in that cemetery about two years ago and the tombstones would catch my eye. Interesting names. And interesting stories sort of between the lines, when you look at birth dates and death dates and sort of line stuff up. It’s just an interesting way to sort of think about the history of your community, just to walk through the cemetery.
SD: And you took engravings from headstones and used them in lyrics.
SC: Yeah. Running through the cemetery kind of kicked off an interest in epitaphs. And ones in the song [“Temporary”], mostly I found online. I found some really cool sites that list hundreds and hundreds of epitaphs and inscriptions on tombstones. I found a great list of colonial New England tombstones that have that kind of poetic language. So I just wrote all my favorites down and condensed [them] into the song. The first verse I wrote. But the second and third verses are tombstone inscriptions.
SD: You’ve mentioned that Bruce Springsteen was a big early influence. But not the anthemic stuff most folks usually associate with the Boss. It was Nebraska that had a profound effect on you. What, specifically, about that album resonated with you?
SC: I was already a Springsteen fan when that came out. And he was a hero to us, me and my buddies in high school. We had a garage band called the Magical Hats. So there was something very exciting and romantic, as a teenager in the Born to Run era and stuff like that. But then Nebraska came out when I was 17 or so and just starting to learn how to play guitar and sing. And it struck me, because everything was so stripped down and simple. Like, you listen to Born to Run and you think, Well, how am I gonna be like that? There’s this huge band and huge budget and all this musical talent. Whereas, you listen to Nebraska, which he recorded on a 4-track in somebody’s house, and you think, Oh. That’s an approachable goal. You know? If I work on my songs and my playing hard enough, I can create something as evocative and powerful and thrilling as Nebraska was to me in my bedroom. It just kind of set me on my path.
SD: To me, one of the great things about that album in particular is that the themes Springsteen is talking about are universal. It’s not like a confessional singer-songwriter album. And that seems to be an approach that you take in your music as well. Is that something you set out to do from the beginning, or did it take time to evolve?
SC: I think I was a little more confessional starting out. But I think I’ve always tended more toward literary-minded, or even documentary-minded, songwriting. If you do look at my first few songs, they are about the little heartbreaks that I was suffering at the time. But it was a couple years of maturity before I made the realization that it wasn’t my job to tell my audience how I felt. It was my job to tell the audience how they felt.
Listening to Springsteen definitely ingrained that into me. As did the other people I listened to at the time. Bob Dylan, Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie, especially. They were talkin’ about the world, how it is out there.
SD: Who are some folks you listen to now?
SC: Honestly, I’m in a community of really great songwriters. So my latest hero is Billy Harvey, actually, who produced one of the songs on my record. He’s been a local Austin guy for almost as long as I have. He’s just a brilliant writer and singer and performer and engineer and player. So he’s my latest favorite.
Adam Carroll has been one of my favorite writers for a long, long time. He’s a pretty obscure Texas writer who just writes songs that ring true like no one else. They’re like Larry McMurtry portraits of Texas, small-town life. These are all people in my community. Honestly, I listen to them and I listen to the classics I grew up with. Like Tom Waits, who I still listen to a lot. And Hank Williams.
But I actually don’t listen to a lot of music.
SC: Not like I used to. I really don’t. When I do listen to music, sometimes it just feels like work. It’s not the escape, the soulful thing that I crave anymore. It’s related to work a little too much.
But usually, when we’re really listening, it’s me and my wife and we’re opening up the LPs, my friends’ old records and my dad’s old records. And that happens rarely, because usually it’s work at night, or we just watch a movie and zone out. But a couple of nights ago we got the LPs out and we listened to The Louvin Brothers record Tragic Songs of Life.
SD: Oh, that’s a great record.
Slaid Cleaves performs this Saturday, June 27, at MountainFolk in Tunbridge, 7:30 p.m. $15/20.