Robert Earl Keen is a confident man. “Bring back Bill Shakespeare and I’ll stand up right next to him,” says the Texas singer-songwriter of the lyrics from his latest album, Ready For Confetti. We talked to Keen about those lyrics, the word he likes to avoid in his songs, and the “caste system” of praise that musicians are subject to.
Your songs usually tell a story. Are those stories autobiographical or more for entertainment purposes?
I usually always try to start with some point of truth as a reference or cornerstone. And then I fictionalize everything from there. Then the idea is to either get a message across through the story or make people think about whatever I think they should be thinking about. There’s usually a message behind the story or sometimes it’s about how cool the story can be. Like for instance on this new record Ready For Confetti, the story from the first cut “The Black Baldy Stallion.” It’s just a really cool Western motif story. I’m not trying to put across any kind of real message other than one lover wants to get to another lover and will do anything to make that happen.
What made you settle on Ready For Confetti as the album title?
I like the title. I’m kind of a snob about titles. I think if you’re going to spend the time to write a really good song or make a really good record, it should have a good title. I thought that reflected the whole record. It’s a fun, colorful record. Musically, it’s somewhat different from track to track so it reflects what I was putting out. And I really like that song. I’m a pretty big snob about titles. I’m sick of these lazy ass titles like Horrible Bosses or Bad Teacher. Give me a break. You’re gonna spend 20 million bucks on a film and call it bad teacher? Give me a break. But people are always saying on my Facebook, “Come see me in Oregon, come see me in Michigan,” and we do get to see them, but the way that we get to do it is because we sell records, not because we sell records, so get out there and buy a record.
How has your approach to songwriting changed over the years?
I think it’s changed dramatically. At one point, I didn’t really know what I was doing. But I had an innate palette for words together and I’d had that from childhood. I always felt like that was my gift, as in I knew how to do it without anyone ever teaching me and without anybody giving me any direction. When I started writing songs, I was about 18, and I knew how to put all the words together, but I didn’t know how to put the words and the music together. So for years, it was just always somewhat of an experiment and I never really used anybody else’s format. I always thought in terms of what kind of story I wanted to get across though. So a song, time wise, could be 45 seconds or 7 minutes as far as I was concerned. And it may never have a chorus or it may never have a bridge, or maybe it’s all bridge. I never really had a template for songwriting and I never did care because I never thought of it in terms of getting on the radio so much. I was just trying to make good songs that worked when I was standing in front of a few people on the stage. Over the years, I found out that I could pretty much tackle anything that came around as far as what kind of song, and how to create a song and how to make a song jump out. I’ve grown quite a bit as a songwriter and I think I can do anything from commercial to an opera at this point.
Do you usually start with lyrics and then come up with a melody afterwards, or vice versa?
I’m more of the couch potato guy who sits there with a guitar and just kind of strums along and eats a potato chip and picks up the remote and turns the channel and strums a few more chords. Sooner or later something sort of pops up into my head. It’s usually an image in my mind, not just a set of words stringed together that sound good together. I think in terms of pictures and, for lack of a better word, storyboards in my head and then I start putting those pictures together and the words just seem to fit. Occasionally they don’t fit and I’ll reevaluate the story and move it around where the words do feel like they fit. But in general, I work from a real image conscious palette.
What’s one song on your new album that you really want people to hear, and why?
I want them to hear all of the songs cause I think they’re all great. I think this is the best record that I’ve ever made. And I might, after five beers, have told somebody else that about another record, but I will stand beside every song on this record. As you listen to it, you’ll like it more with every listen. It’s a record that you’ll put on one year from now, or even ten years from now, and like it even more than you did the last time. It’s really solid. So if I had to just pick one song that I wanted everybody to hear, I would say, “I Gotta Go.” It’s a really cool song and for me, it was a really great moment in that the band that I record with is just as instrumental in making that song happen as I was by just writing the words.
A lot of the songs on the album span through several genres, such as calypso, blues, jazz and country. Was your intention to employ several different styles on the album, or did these songs just come out of you naturally?
Every time that I make a record, I look at it as a song-by-song basis. There’s a certain way a song feels when you’re sitting around playing it by yourself, but when you sit down with the guys and start to figure out how to record it, you start going one way, and then you go, “You know, that just doesn’t feel right with the words, let’s try this.” So for instance, on “Top Down,” it’s just such a breezy song, and the whole idea is just riding around in this little convertible and being cool. So that lightweight swing sort of thing just felt like the right thing to do there. And on “Ready For Confetti,” the image of the woman dancing on the corner made it seem like it should have the carnivale kind of feel. So we just kept layering more and more drums and percussion on top of it and we just had a big ol’ time with it. I’ve never sat down and made a concept record. I guess if you did that, you’d want to have some musical thread all the way through that was more similar. Ideally, when I make records, I want to echo the words with the music. If the words are light and breezy, then you want a light and breezy feel, if the words are solid and serious and heavier, then you want to anchor it more to the ground.
Is there a lyric on this new album that you’re particularly proud of?
I like all my lyrics and I’m not kidding you either. You know, bring back Bill Shakespeare and I’ll stand up right next to him. I don’t think I’m the cleverest guy, but I’m a solid lyricist. In the “Black Baldy Stallion,” I’m singing a syllable on every beat, which reflects this whole feeling of riding a horse to some destination. Then when it gets to the chorus, it opens up really wide. There’s just a few words in the chorus and it’s a real singable, easy chorus. But the story right there is very dense and I was really proud of that. And that was intentional. I wanted this really dense verse and then this really open chorus. It builds tension through the verses and then gives you some great release during the choruses.
Are there any words that you love, or hate?
I hate the word “people” for some reason. When I hear people say “Hey people,” or “These people,” or something, I don’t know why, but I just think it’s not a word that belongs in songs for some reason. And I know it’s in a million songs, and I’ve used it personally, but I’ve done everything I could to avoid it.
Do you find yourself revising your songs a lot, or do they come to you automatically?
I do pretty well with getting them all the way through, but I will edit some stuff. I’m certainly not afraid to go back and make something better if I think I can make it better. Generally, when I write through a song, I have 90 percent of it done, if not 100 percent. For instance, “I’ve Gotta Go.” There’s not one single change in there, I wrote that from beginning to end. I’m big on editing myself if I feel like there’s a better way to go with the story or the word choice. Something that I’ve learned over the years that the great singers know instinctively is some sounds sing better than other. Like “O’s” sing better than “E’s” and that kind of thing. I’m conscious of that, so I will make those kind of changes.
Who’s an underrated songwriter, in your opinion?
James McMurtry is a master. The guy should be standing up there with Paul Simon or Bob Dylan. What I don’t understand in this democratic country, how we have such a layered, almost caste system, of musicians. Here’s Bob Dylan and he is the greatest and when we’re all dead and gone and they’re looking back at us 400 years from now, they can look at Bob and say he was the Shakespeare of songwriters, and I would agree. But the fact is, you’ve got somebody like James McMurtry playing down at the Continental at midnight on a Wednesday and it’s full, but there’s only 200 people when there should be 200,000 people listening to James. And then my friends Todd Snider and Greg Brown. There are people out there that are flat out geniuses that have a very limited audience and I flat out blame it on the music industry.
Speaking of Todd Snider, you covered his song “Play A Train Song.” How did that come about?
I love Todd, and I was listening to his record, East Nashville Skyline, and that song’s one of my favorites from that record. I learned the song from listening to the record, and it felt really natural to me. It felt like a song that I was sitting there writing myself. You’ll find through my whole catalog that I’ve always tried to do songs from other people, like I was just saying, deserve a wider audience and a lot more exposure. And it’s not like I’m doing them any big favors. I’d love if everybody would get to listen to Todd Snider; he’s a flat out genius. He should have his own HBO special. The guy’s as funny as any guy you’ll ever go see at a comedy club.
You rerecorded “Paint The Town Beige,” almost 20 years after its original recording. What made you do that?
I grew into the song. When I wrote it, it was something that I felt, but it was something that I felt was going to be in the future. Now it’s something that I feel personally every day.
You incorporate humor into a lot of your songs. Why is that?
I feel like it’s a touchstone to the audience. It really has to do with live performance and testing the waters out there. You throw something overtly funny out there, that most people are going to get a chuckle out of, and if you get a flat reaction, then change directions. It’s a way to feel out your audience. And in the world of comic relief, it’s a way to pick the show back up and allow the show to have a life of its own. Whereas if you played the same tempo song with the same subject matter, one song after another, you may lull them into some sense of boredom and people may walk off or get tired. I know that’s not always the case, but I like humor because it works great for the live show.
My favorite song on the album was “The Road Goes On And On,” but you seemed a little angry in that song. What’s the story behind that?
Well, you know you get tired of getting beat up on, so I thought I would send out a message. I’m pretty good about going along and taking my lumps here and there. I’ve been playing on stage for 30 years. I’ve played in every kind of situation from the top of a mountain in July when it was snowing on me to playing in 100-degree heat at a garage sale, so I’ve put up with everything. So every once in a while, you’ll run into a person who you think is like-minded as far as a fellow songwriter saying “Come here brother and be my pal,” and then they do everything but be your pal. So I’m answering him.
The title harkens back to “The Road Goes On Forever” which is a much happier song. Have you taken on a more pessimistic view?
Oh no, not at all. The song is a particular message delivered in song fashion and the whole point is, if you want to be a tough guy or a real cowboy, then you need to sing, “The road goes on forever and the party never ends.” This song is all about the message at the very end.
If you had to pick one song to be remembered by, what would it be and why?
One of my most autobiographical songs that sort of sums up my career from a while back all the way to today is “Dreadful Selfish Crime.” I also say that cause it’s a song I never get tired of playing.
What’s a song that you wish you’d written and why?
“Gentle On My Mind.” It’s a John Hartford song. It’s a fantastic song. It’s just such an incredibly cinematic sentiment. Or there’s a Jimmy Webb song called “ MacArthur Park” and I think it’s one of the coolest songs I’ve ever heard. It’s just so damn weird. I can’t believe anybody would write a song about a cake melting in the rain.