Rod Picott sings thoughtful songs for the working man. His tunes have been recorded by esteemed songwriters like Fred Eaglesmith, Ray Wylie Hubbard and his childhood buddy Slaid Cleaves. We asked Picott about his new album Hang Your Hopes On A Crooked Nail, which, according to his website, offers an “unblinking albeit wry gaze into our common heart and a clenched fist of defiance against the trials that tear at our humanity.” Let’s get this party started.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Mary Gauthier, Tom Waits, Guy Clark, Lucinda Williams, John Prine. . . . there are different people for different elements of the craft… Lennon and McCartney were good. I’m always thrilled by people who can write something amazing with no bells and whistles though. Marvin Gaye wrote stunning songs but he was such an incredible singer that it’s almost hard to tell if you know what I mean. When I hear Prine sing the first verse of “Unwed Fathers” it blows my mind.
How would you describe Hang Your Hopes On A Crooked Nail?
Love songs for the broken-hearted and work songs for the unemployed. I write small cinematic pieces filled with people you will recognize. There are no dragons or fairies in there. I tend to find different angles for the same themes over and over. Characters trying to find a place for themselves in this world seems to be endlessly entertaining to me.
How would you compare it to your last album?
Hang Your Hopes On A Crooked Nail is slightly more personal than the last album. Welding Burns was my blue collar manifesto of sorts. These are songs with the same characters but a little more from the interior of their lives, a little more inside their heads and inside mine as well.
Do you have any tricks you like to use in the studio? Lots of reverb? Candles? Acertain kind of microphone you always use?
None. It’s all about capturing a moment and fighting off the instinct to fix things. We used the scratch vocal on a think three of the tracks on the new album. I told the producer, “you like that one? Nice, because I can do it different but I can’t do it better. It’s not gonna sound better no matter how long I stand there for the most part.
How did you learn how to play guitar?
It was pretty painful actually. I have very little natural talent but I had desire, you know? Nobody knows how hard you’re willing to work at something. They can all say what they want to say but they don’t know how hard you will work for it. A few lessons, playing with friends, a lot of time with the box on my knee. I’m not much of a player but I work the idiosyncrasies into the whole.
Every musician is influenced by the artists that came before them. Are you influenced by new musicians as well?
Oh sure. I love the John Moreland record, Jason Isbell’s new record is really great. Isbell is married to my ex, Amanda Shires, she’s a wonderful writer. Amanda’s songs have depth and nuance that is staggering. She’s a poet. She’s a great looking girl and quirky too so her writing is overlooked sometimes. Mary Gauthier and Sam Baker are brilliant. I’m just trying to play with the big kids.
How often do you play for fun, just for yourself? What sort of stuff do you play when you do?
Strangely I seem to write more for fun rather than play. That might be telling. I enjoy writing. I’m working on a collection of short stories and a screen play. I don’t know if they’ll come to fruition but I like playing with stories, words and language. When I play for fun it tends to be just plunking around looking for ideas that are pleasing-chord progressions, melodies, rhythms.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
I started writing when I was about 16 years old. No, dear god they were atrocious at first. For most people, it is a long process to finding your voice as a writer. Writing is easy. I could turn out a song an hour for days. Writing something really good is very very difficult.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
The first song I ever wrote was called “Melanie.” It was a thinly disguised paean to the girl I was obsessed with. The verse didn’t really match the chorus. It was quite awkward but undeniably thrilling to experience creating something that didn’t exist before. I was hooked.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
I write nearly every day so let me check. I just looked at my computer and the last song I worked on is called “The Norseman Lounge.” I work on a few every day, trying to push them forward. I still enjoy the process, it still thrills me to write something good or unexpected.
How do you go about writing songs?
I sit down and push the pen around until one shows up. I have my antennae up most of the time so I collect ideas, phrases, concepts. One of the most difficult things in songwriting is seldom talked about. Finding a concept that’s strong enough to hold up four minutes, a concept that has enough subtext so that there will be that wonderful richness is the most difficult part of the process. A lot of times you’ll hear songwriting coaches sort of saying, “what do you want to write about? A can opener? OK! How can we do that?” Why waste your time you know? It’s not a magic trick. You need something worth a listener’s four minutes. My frequent co-writer Slaid Cleaves says, “I just don’t have enough time for a bad song anymore.”
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
Tell the truth. Make it rhyme. Put the important words in the best spots. Don’t instruct the listener. Just tell the story. If you pick good stories the songs will be better. I’m vigilant with the language I use when characters are in the song. Does the guy pick up a shovel or does he pick up a spade? Depends where he’s from. You have to think these things through and it’s worth the time. Also, there are words you just don’t want to sing. A co-writer tried to use the word “spaghetti” in a song once. I would go the mat on that one. I’m not singing the word “spaghetti” in a song for love nor money.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
That list is just too long. I’m moved by people’s stories and the bravery people find in small ways and big ways in their lives. Nothing is as moving to me than someone who struggles to find a place for themselves in this world and won’t be denied. People are amazing creatures. The mysteries of love. Love can be so huge it causes people to destroy themselves and so fragile that it turns to ash in the wind. This world is as mysterious beautiful and frightening as you think it is…and more.
What’s a song on Hang Your Hopes that you’re particularly proud of and why?
I’m pretty happy with “I Might Be Broken Now.” It’s a very small song with a very complicated subtext. That’s a tricky combination to conjure up. I wrote it with Amanda Shires while we were breaking up. Writing a break up song while you are breaking up with the person you are breaking up with is confusing. It’s like helping a thief break into your house. “There’s the jewelry. Here’s the gun and the album collection…” It worked this time but I don’t want to try it again I don’t think.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
His belt is cracked a couple extra holes
With the leather punch from the inside tools
Underneath the sink with the Kiwi shine
Black for black and red for brown
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
It’s both. It’s harder to find ideas as you use up the good ones but of course your skills get better so it’s easier to shape the good ideas into songs because you’re better with the tools.
Are there any words you love or hate?
No, it’s all about placement. You can use “spaghetti” in a song but there’s something inherently comical about the word so it’s going to color the other words around it. You know? It’s like painting, if you use that crimson up next to that green but it’s going to change how the green looks.
The most annoying thing about songwriting is….
I would say finding a great idea then discovering it’s been done. I had a great little song called “When The Money Runs Out” The chorus was just the line “What are we gonna do when the money runs out” It was pretty good. I kept coming back to it. One day I was listening to a David Grey CD and all of a sudden there’s my song, “What are we gonna do when the money runs out” That one bummed me out. I’ve been working on a song called “Digging Ditches” for a couple years. I heard Sam Baker’s new CD. He has a song called “Ditch” and I immediately sent him a note. “You son of a bitch I had my “ditch” song for two years!” It’s very disappointing, particularly when the other song is good. If it’s not good sometimes you just say, “screw it.”
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
There is a song called “Haunted Man” from my first CD. It’s a hard song to sing. It’s quite raw and open-hearted. It’s a song about wanting to move on and openly admitting that you can’t move on yet. You will, but not yet. After the album came out I received a note from a woman in Europe who’s husband had committed suicide. It was shocking to me. Her note was lovely and of course tragic but I think the open nature of the narrator in the song sort of made sense to her somehow. Songs can work in ways you don’t expect. A lot of people have talked to me about “Broke Down” over the years but when someone wants to talk about “Haunted Man” I sort of tighten up a bit. It’s not easy to talk about.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Tough question. In my secret heart my dream would be to hear Ray Charles or Otis Redding sing something I wrote. Ain’t gonna happen. In terms of co-writing I think Leonard Cohen would be an education.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Willie Deville, Amanda Shires, Dolly Parton, Eminem, Taylor Swift is a good writer. You see great songwriting missed by the public when the act works in a genre where that’s not really the focus of the act if you know what I mean? Dolly wrote “Coat of Many Colors.” I mean c’mon people. The Nashville world knows that but I think Dolly’s presence is so forceful people don’t realize. This is a hard conversation to have because as a songwriter it’s a very different conversation than you would have with someone who doesn’t write. Mike Cooley from Drive By Truckers is absolutely great.
What do you consider to be the perfect song?
“Unwed Fathers” by Bobby Braddock and John Prine. Just look at the first two lines: “In an Appalachian, greyhound station she sits there waiting, in a family way” It’s 16 perfect lines that reveal an entire story with all the weight and beauty the story deserves. Show me two better opening lines and I’ll give you my guitar. It’s so potent, there’s no waste, not one extra word. It’s perfect to me. It’s like a Raymond Chandler story in song. Beautiful, moving, cinematic, efficient and powerful. It’s a perfect song. They’re hard to come by. I’m glad you only asked me for one.