“I had all sorts of crazy ideas for big, long, frickin’ words with lots of syllables,” Billy Strings tells American Songwriter over the phone. Attempting to follow suit of his 2017 solo debut Turmoil & Tinfoil, the artist sought a titular sentiment of equal or greater eccentricity. But a year like 2020 leaves little energy for semantics. Crawling out of the devastation of a global pandemic, Strings looked instead to the promise of brighter days with a simplistic title—Renewal.
Out September 24 via Rounder Records, the acoustic music champion and Bluegrass virtuoso’s latest work follows his acclaimed Home LP. “We made that record Home in 2019, and a couple of months later, that’s where we were,” says Strings. Listening back through the award-winning collection, the artist feels haunted by the eerily familiar instances of foreshadowing. Though coincidental, Strings wanted to switch out the lens through which he witnessed the painful experience of the past 18 months for this project. Titled Renewal, the new album’s sentiment evokes strength in seeking silver linings.
“I thought ‘Well fuck, maybe I’ll call the next one Renewal because hopefully, that’s what’s gonna happen,” he says. “Hopefully we’re gonna molt out of this and go into something new.”
Born William Apostol in Lansing, Michigan, the pioneering artist has garnered wisdom well beyond his 28 years since moving to Nashville in 2015. His most recent collaborations with artists ranging from Luke Combs to Del McCoury and Fences exemplify the breadth of his musical reach.
Raised on “hardcore Bluegrass,” Strings also credits Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin for instilling a rock sensibility deep within his foundation. Renewal is an amalgamation of influences that coalesce in an era-defining career for a once-in-a-generation kind of artist.
The album artwork features a photograph taken by his dear friend and professional skateboarder, Tyler Franz. After establishing the title, Strings was struck by this photo of yellow flowers. In the spirit of the songs, Renewal sends a message of blossoming hope and love at a time when the world needs it the most.
“I’m sick of people being at each other’s throats, being assholes to each other over political shit, the virus, whatever—it’s exhausting,” he says. “And I’m so out of the loop as far as the political bullshit goes. I stepped away from it all and went back to keeping my head down and just playing guitar, which is what I’ve always done, and what has always kind of saved my life anyways.”
Honing in on the motif, Strings says, “Growth here sounds like having the balls to do whatever the fuck I want in the studio.”
Expanding on that, Strings points to an integral song, “Heartbeat Of America.” Best described as “a big instrumental jam” with a little verse wedged in the middle. Though unorthodox, the slight break allows Strings’ unabashed vocals to shine. “I could have easily said, ‘Okay, well, this song needs a verse, a pre-chorus, a chorus, a bridge—but that’s not how this song presented itself,’ says Strings. “It’s about getting out of your own way.”
Admittedly, it took winning a Grammy for Home in 2019 to finally arrive at this venturing moment. “Don’t get me wrong,” he adds, “I got my hands dirty. And I got in there, but not as much. I would trust the producers and the engineers more to lead the way because I felt like ‘Well, these guys know what I’m doing and I don’t. I just sing and play guitars.’ But I’m learning, ‘So do I.’”
Though Strings’ fulfillment does not hinge on the broader industry standards of success, earning the recognition of Best Bluegrass Album from the Recording Academy instilled deeper confidence. This poise is reflected in the avant-garde approach of the new album project.
Produced by Jonathan Wilson (Roger Waters, Father John Misty) and recorded at Nashville’s Sound Emporium Studios, Renewal sees the artist preserving revered roots in music traditions by pushing the perceived boundaries. Alongside his touring bandmates —Billy Failing (banjo, vocals, piano), Royal Masat (bass, vocals), and Jarrod Walker (mandolin, vocals, guitar), as well as guests John Mailander (violin), Spencer Cullum Jr. (pedal steel) and Grant Millikem (synth)—Strings ventures into uncharted territory in the studio.
Reflecting on his inspirations for the project, Strings cites John Lennon of The Beatles, who in an attempt to capture an “underwater sound” allegedly recorded “Yellow Submarine” through a mic, pushed into a water jug and covered by a condom to protect from the threat of electric shock. “Just fucking stoners,” he laughs. “But it’s awesome. Like, what if you made a really cool sound? It’s always worth a shot.”
Strings’ creative energy is palpable across the 16-track collection. Keeping an open mind, he found himself reaching for synthesizers and triangles throughout the process. He also sat behind the piano and stood in behind an electric bass to capture his envisioned soundscape. Beyond his instrumental dexterity, Strings showcases his unexpected strength as an expressive vocalist. “Love and Regret” slows the driving cadence of the opening tracks, soaring through a vocal arc with ease. A whispering spoken-word verse interludes to portray a dream-like stream of consciousness.
His confidence radiates through the intimate “In The Morning Light.” Gentle instrumentation makes way for Strings’ candid lyricism in a touching tribute for his girlfriend, Ally. Co-written with Paul Hoffman (Greensky Bluegrass) and released on Ally’s birthday, the contemplative single captures the duality of love. There’s a high price to pay for the pain involved, but Strings establishes his priorities. Lyrically, he lauds his lover for her role in both his success and sanity. Humbled by her dedication, Strings emphasizes his commitment to her in hopes that might one day feel worthy of the love he is not sure he deserves. The music video breathes life into this song as a visual centerpiece of the project.
“Every morning is a renewal; it’s another chance,” says Strings. “It’s a renewed day.”
He credits emotional processing for his ability to open up within the album. “I’m growing a lot as a human, as a man, and as a young child that went through some shit,” says Strings. “I’ve been going through therapy these past few years, and these records are part of that. I’m really starting to get over some of the trauma caused by substance abuse in my childhood.”
This personal evolution is also part of Renewal—letting those things go, moving on. “There’s no one looking back except me,” he adds.
“I live in the past, man; I dwell there. There was a point in my life when I was really poor, and the people I loved were on drugs. And I was just a little kid trying to learn to play guitar really good so that people would notice me. Music really saved my life. Even when shit was really bad, music has always been good—my companion and friend. It’s what got me through all that shit.”
Strings has been dwelling there since his entrance projects—Rock of Ages (2013) and Fiddle Tune X (2014)—with celebrated mandolinist Don Julin and his self-titled 2016 solo debut EP. Stepping into his third album with a steady footing, the articulate artist acknowledges the pieces of his past that define his present self. But he is emboldened by his progress and patiently awaiting the undergrowth to bloom beneath what he previously deemed scorched earth.
“I’ll probably always write about my past,” Strings concludes. “But as far as a timestamp, this is probably a good portrait in words as to where I’m at right now, which is in a transitional period of healing.”
Photo Credit: Jesse Faatz
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