Historically, America has been known as the “Promised Land,” but Austin-based songwriter Slaid Cleaves has vowed to never again call it that. In his newest album, Still Fighting The War, Cleaves explores American life from a grittier perspective – through the eyes of disenchanted war veterans, blue-collar workers and people from small towns just trying to get by. The album doesn’t drop until June 18, but American Songwriter’s Mike Berick has already dubbed it “one of the year’s best singer-songwriter albums.” We talked with Cleaves about songwriting, the inspiration behind Still Fighting The War and more.
What’s your writing routine – how much of your day do you typically spend on being creative?
Day to day, I try to be good and jot down the slightest idea that I stumble upon before it disappears. But I really only sit down and write during a handful of long weekends each year. I’ll sequester myself somewhere and set aside time to just read, watch movies, write in a journal. I’ll look through the list of the fragments I’ve collected all year and try to combine them and flesh them out into songs.
You majored in philosophy in college – does that play into your songwriting? Got any philosophy books you’d recommend?
Not really. I was asking big questions and wound up getting instructed in analytical philosophy. Literature, movies and music turned out to be better avenues.
You busked in Ireland when you were younger. What was that like? What sort of stuff did you play? What happened next?
Busking was my way of building up my repertoire and my singing voice when I was just learning how to play and sing. I played Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, Springsteen, Tom Waits, The Replacements. I hated it when people asked for James Taylor or Cat Stevens. One night a little drunkard started making up his own verses to the Woody Guthrie song I was singing. I followed suit. That’s how I started writing: adding verses to Hank’s and Woody’s songs. Back home in New England, when it got cold I worked my way into the bars.
Tell us a bit about Still Fighting The War.
The title song was inspired in part by a photo essay I saw in the Denver Post about a young vet with severe PTSD. Other songs are about dealing with adversity, perseverance through tough times. The recession’s over, but we’re all still struggling, we keep pushing on.
How would you compare it to your previous album?
The previous record was Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away. So this one’s positively sunny in comparison. Seriously, there’s a couple of light-hearted numbers on the new one. I almost called the album Whim of Iron.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
If I ever get tattoos it’ll be Hank on one shoulder and Woody on the other. As far as people around today I look up to Adam Carroll, Fred Eaglesmith, Rod Picott.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
There were a few aborted attempts in high school and early college. Bad stuff.
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
I think the first one I finished was “Don’t Say No” in 1986. It was earnest, naïve. “Behind each face there is a world / How many worlds have you seen today?” But there was a nice melody. All those years listening to the Beatles, I guess.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
I never say “last.” It spooks me. The “most recent” completed song would be one I wrote with Rod Picott called “You’re Not Missing Anything.” It’s on a benefit CD he just put out called The Bridge.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Language or conversation that catches my ear, stories that I come across through friends and family or in books and movies. Stuff I’m experiencing sometimes. Deadlines!
How do you go about writing songs?
Like a crossword puzzle. When I get stuck I put it away. Maybe for the day, maybe for a couple of years. When I pull it back out, often I know immediately how to fix it or move it along a step. Then I put it away again, before I start obsessing over it, and open something else up.
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
Be honest. Stay in character. Avoid the predictable rhyme or phrasing. Spend time getting meter and rhythm and flow and singability.
What’s a song on Still Fighting The War you’re particularly proud of?
“Texas Love Song”: It’s a happy love song (rare for me), and a Texas pride song (overdue, as I’ve lived here 21 years) and I came up with six rhymes for “Texas.”
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
You know where all the tastiest Tex-Mex is
I love you even more than I love Texas
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
I’ll put it this way. One day in 1991 I wrote two songs. That doesn’t happen anymore.
Are there any words you love or hate (in general)?
I’ve vowed to never again use “promised land.”
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
I’ve got some essays up on my website. I’ve never been able to do fiction, though. It feels too much like lying.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
“One Good Year” comes up as something that’s helped people get through a hard time. One guy sent me a thank you note and a pair of cowboy boots.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
I’ve never had a desire to co-write with anyone in particular. I’ve got a few friends I trade ideas with. But Rod Picott’s the only one I trust to call me on my bullshit. It helps that we’ve known each other since we were in grade school.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Rod has some fans but he should have a lot more.
What do you consider to be the perfect song?
“Red Bandana Blues” by Adam Carroll. It’s basically a sequel to “Like a Rolling Stone” for people in East Texas in the 2000s. Not a single rhyme is predictable, yet they all make perfect sense: “They had nightmares and needles, with the Stones and the Beatles.”