I was introduced to (and wrote about) singer/songwriter Jason Spooner‘s latest album, Sea Monster, back in late November 2010, when Damien Goyenechea of Sarathan Online Services sent me a link to Seed In The Ground, one of the songs from the new release. After hearing some of the New England-based musician’s work, I was fortunate enough to do an email interview with Spooner about his music and overall creative approach. I hope you enjoy reading the interview as much as I got a kick out of conducting the interview.
Tim O’Shea: Not many musicians can walk into a Starbucks and hear their own music. How was it that your new album got added to the overhead rotation?
Jason Spooner: A few years back, we were selected for a Starbucks Music Makers competition. About 10 bands form the Northeast bands went down to the Hard Rock Cafe in Boston… one of those deals where you play 3 songs and wait around to find out if you won. Well, we didn’t win… but one of the judges told me (on the down-low) that the one guy who was there from Hear Music (Starbucks’ Music Label) was really pulling for us to win. I ended up getting the guy’s contact info. and we kept in touch. It’s one of those “silver lining” stories I suppose. I find that having a good attitude as an artist is a good way to encourage positive results, even when it doesn’t immediately appear to be a positive situation (ie: schlepping down to Boston and losing a competition).
O’Shea: Rather than trying to get airplay solely on terrestrial/traditional radio, you appear to be a musician that also targets satellite radio. How much has projects like Live from the Loft helped get the word out about your music?
Spooner: Well, it’s a fairly predictable answer… sheer numbers. We love the fact that we’ve managed to take an indie record and make a visible dent on the AAA radio charts (we were #18 on the BDS Indicator chart last week) but the reality is that airplay in a single market is just that… airplay in a single market. It’s a great way to raise awareness about your music but you need to be willing to tour in that market to really take advantage of the exposure. We’ve certainly tried to do that and it’s been a good strategy in terms of developing a fan base.
Sirius/XM is a different animal because of the fact that you’re talking about a national audience in that case. When one of our tunes spins on The Loft, it’s spinning in every market in every state nationwide. Your name and album title is showing up on the display of every stereo and car stereo that is tuned into that channel at the time. The exposure is massive and unparalleled… it’s hard to beat.
We’re also lucky with The Loft specifically… because they are very into having their artists come in and play live. They invited us down to record a live in-studio performance so we got a taste of their incredible studio where folks like Paul McCartney and Bonnie Raitt have performed. We generally cringe when we hear our radio sets (because the engineering is usually very rudimentary and basic… one mic, no effects, etc,) but the XM session sounded phenomenal. They agreed and told us that we were welcome to release it as a live album… even encouraged us to do so. We put it out in 2008 as a live ep and fans really love it because of the energy that we captured.
O’Shea: In a recent Down East interview you confessed to binging on the songs of JJ Cale, what is it about Cale’s work that appeals to you?
Spooner: The great thing for me about discovering JJ Cale was that it felt like coming across a huge treasure chest buried in the sand… here was a classic artist with decades of phenomenal material just waiting for me to dig in. That’s an amazing feeling… when you know you’ve come across something special and there’s A LOT of it.
As far as the characteristics that I enjoy so much about his style… the obvious place to start is his guitar playing. There’s just something very understated but very deep about his playing. He’s not an overt technician by any means, nor is he a show-off chops kind of player. He’s just got a great mix of soulful, tasty notes that always end up in the right place. He’s also a master of texture… when you really dig into a good JJ Cale track, you’ll realize that there are maybe 3, 4 or 5 guitar tracks all doing incredible but almost imperceptible things that meld into this gravy of sound. It’s tough to explain but you just need to sit down and hear it. There’s a reason that guys like Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler reference JJ Cale as one of the their primary influences. He really has a one of a kind sound… that is so rare today.
I also love the fact that he engineers and mixes all of his own stuff… JJ Cale fans call his mixing “the soup.” A lot of roots & blues stuff has the guitar and vocals way out front. Listen to any Stevie Ray Vaughn record (another genius at the other end of the spectrum) and it’s like a big manly joust between guitar and vocal. Loud & proud. JJ Cale tunes are the opposite, it’s like a brilliant exercise in restraint. He has an ability to get everything in the mix cooking enough to be groovy as hell but nowhere near boiling… not even simmering, just sort of bubbling. The vocals are way back… almost ghostly. The guitars are swirling in every corner, gracefully swooping in and out with soulful highlights but never squawking in your face and the rhythm section is always holding down the foundation masterfully.
I love music & records where I feel like the artist is not just creating songs but creating what I think of as musical ecosystems… where you have air, land and sea all within the context of the artists vision & sound. It’s a rarity… Cale creates this regularly. Feist is another artist that does this… she creates worlds & emotional tapestries with her songs. Radiohead as well… truly brilliant stuff.
O’Shea: It’s impressive the number of folks you have shared the stage with over the years. Can you talk about the time Dar Williams popped up on stage and joined you on a cover of Dylan’s Girl From The North Country?
Spooner: That really was one of the cooler moments over the last decade. My band was booked to play an annual summer street festival in our home town of Portland, ME. Nice little stage set amongst the cobblestone streets, sea gulls and brick buildings of the picturesque “Old Port” part of town. I realized that Dar played right after us so I put the word out that we’d love to do Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country” with her as a duet… trading verses in the tradition of the seminal Dylan/Cash version on Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline.” I never heard back so I pretty much forgot about it. Then, about 20 minutes before our set… someone tapped me on the shoulder and said “so maybe we should practice that Dylan tune.” It was Dar! She was SO nice… very cool and humble. Just a very sweet person in addition to being a huge talent and great writer. We found a quiet corner and ran the tune twice… she joined us for the last song of our set and absolutely killed the vocal. One of my most memorable music moments for sure.
O’Shea: How does your new album benefit from the involvement of Jonathan Wyman?
Spooner: Where do I begin with that question… I guess it’s safe to say that the mark of a great producer/engineer is similar to the mark of a good fisherman (sorry, I live in Maine): ie – knowing when to let the fish erratically run with the line and knowing when to wisely reel and steer the fish back to the boat. Wyman is brilliant at adapting to every project he works on and the extent of his involvement really depends on the situation. He is equally comfortable wearing both the engineer hat or the producer hat and he bases the extent of his involvement on the vibe of the artist. He’s also a very musical guy (and a scarily good guitar player) so you can always tap him for thoughts on chords or song structure, anything… that’s a huge asset. He’s a got an extensive musical vocabulary. It’s definitely harder when you’re working with an engineer who is more of a strict knob-twiddler techie type.
I think the way that we tackled Sea Monster was unique… Jon definitely let me run with ideas but he was always very quick to chime in the an idea or a collaborative direction. He’s very quick with the knobs so trying directions and ideas is very east and fast. He made the recording process as fun as it could be. (I’m one of those musicians who equates recording with what the birthing process must be like… painful, brutal, long but incredible and rewarding when it’s all said and done). Another cool thing about this record was that I got into the editing process a bit with Pro Tools… Jon was very open about showing me some tricks with the software so we got to the point where I was doing some basic-level editing in the B Studio upstairs while Jon was mixing downstairs. It helped me a lot with my technical chops and saved us a lot of time.
O’Shea: Can you talk about your songwriting process, maybe taking us through the development of one of your new songs, from initial concept to the final version?
Spooner: I’m not one of those songwriters who sits down in front of a blank piece of paper and starts writing lyrics. I need to have some music cooking first… some chords, a groove, etc.. I generally start that on the guitar and then the melody starts to form… sometimes I’m just humming or singing nonsense. Once I have a melody that I find interesting, I start the lyrics and generally the vibe of the tune informs the lyrics.
I think this record was a little different because I started experimenting with using drum loop and drum sample software to get the ideas flowing in my home sudio. Once I got my legs with the software, I found it to be a very creative resource. As a guitar player, I have my standard “bag” or default style of playing. Sometimes it’s hard to break out of that. Drum loops are a good way to generate ideas because you might hear a groove or a time signature that isn’t in your default bag but which inspires something. I did this with several of the tunes on Sea Monster and then brought the demo’s in for the band to mess around with. It ended up being a great way to start the process.
O’Shea: What prompted you to cover Terence Trent D’Arby on the new album?
Spooner: We sort of cut our teeth playing 4 hour bar gigs around New England… and we still have a fun bar set that we tap into. “Wishing Well” is just one of those random 80’s tunes that made it into our set list. The cool thing about it is that is never ceases to get the crowd moving… even if it’s a mellow night, that song will get people fired up. It’s just got a fun feel… our version just seems to play itself.
We had an extra few hrs. in the studio and we agreed that we should try a cover… that was the logical choice and we all really dig the way it came out. I love of the 80’s version but we wanted to get back to basics with it… it’s really just a great R&B pop tune at the core. So we went with a stripped down approach with acoustic guitar, some hollowbody electric, some horns and big focus on the bass & drums. Very fun tune.
O’Shea: Can you breakdown the musician line-up for Sea Monster? Were you able to sneak in any special guest appearances?
Spooner: Jason Spooner – Guitar, Vocals, Harmonica, Organ
Adam Frederick – Bass, Vocals
Reed Chambers – Drums & Percussion
We also had Bucky Baxter guest on 4 tracks. He’s a Nashville session guru… master of pedal steel, dobro and electric and acoustic guitar. Has played on records by R.E.M, Ryan Adams, Elvis Costello and toured as Bob Dylan’s pedal steel man for over a decade. We were very lucky to get him to play on the record to say the least!
O’Shea: What’s ahead for you in 2011 musically?
Spooner: This year will be all about promoting the new record… We just completed 2 pretty chunky western tours. We’ll be doing some light touring back east for the winter and then hammering the festival circuit this summer. I can’t wait. We all love festivals.