American Songwriter caught up with Rod Picott to talk about his new album, Fortune, set to release later this summer. A former construction worker turned songwriter, Picott weaves the gritty details of life into introspective, carefully crafted and vibrant story-songs. Be sure to listen to “Elbow Grease” below.
Why did you choose “Elbow Grease” as the first single for the album?
Well, I suppose it’s because in some ways it kind of speaks to the overall record. This is a more intimate record than the others, which have been more narrative. I just felt like the track worked nicely. “Elbow Grease” is me sort of looking back at my own life. It has a feeling of summation. [laughs] It sounds like I’m dying. But it felt like I was telling my own story in a more intimate way for the first time.
You once said there was a fine line between writing a song as catharsis and writing a song that is truthful so it resonates with the audience. Was it different on this album? Is that why some of these songs are more personal?
I approached this record in a really specific kind of way. There are songwriters out there who almost ask their audience to be their therapist. I really feel like it’s supposed to work the other way. You know, you don’t ask your audience to reflect what you want to see back on yourself – you’re there to reflect them for themselves. The healing nature of music, the cathartic nature, and telling stories ought to be enough. You know, you shouldn’t ask your audience to be your therapist. [laughs] I pay a guy for that!
How do you take a fresh look at classic topics such as love when you’re writing your songs?
It’s your own sense of language. I’ve used the word a couple of times now, but another thing that is intuitive about songs, to make them really ring true for people, is there has to be specifics. And your specifics are different than mine. You pillage through your own wreckage and point at it – that’s the stuff you use. There’s a reason that people keep making music and movies and writing books about relationships. Those are the things that drive us and inspire us. I don’t wake up thinking about the economy. I wake up thinking about the relationships in my life.
What does being honest mean to you in songwriting? How do you keep yourself accountable to that?
You know, it’s a funny thing writing – in a way it is manipulation – you are writing to get the reader or listener to respond in a certain kind of way. Remaining true to the elements that you’re trying to communicate is sort of what I mean by honesty. You can make up a detail, if you think it serves the story you’re trying to tell better. Dishonest songwriting is asking yourself what the listener wants to hear and giving them that. ‘Cuz then you’re not really writing – you’re trying to serve somebody a cheeseburger. Which is fine, but that’s not my job. That’s for somebody else.
In your mind, what sets this album apart from your previous albums?
I had worked really hard from the time I was a young in my late teens trying to learn how to write these very detailed, narrative songs that had characters. They were like small movies. With this record, while there is an element of that, for the bulk of it I’ve telescoped and turned it back on myself. There still is a narrative element, but it’s more intimate. It’s more from my own life. I had a conversation with a friend of mine who said, “I’d really like to hear what your boy/girl song is.” So I asked my what my version of that was, ya know? That’s my complicated way of saying how this record was made.
Was that conversation the only moment that inspired the perspective shift, or was it more of a convolution of moments?
It was a few different things. I felt like I didn’t want to make the same record. Not that I had made the same records before, but I felt like I had already explored the territory of the sort-of blue-collared life that I grew up in. Relationship songs might not feel fresh to the general public, but it felt fresh to me to look at my own interior world.
Which song was the most difficult for you to write off of Fortune?
I suppose the most difficult song for me in a genuine kind of way was “Elisha.” It’s just so naked, so raw. It was hard to sing. The first couple of times I sang it, I didn’t know if I could do it. It was so personal. I hadn’t written many songs in my life that were that personal. It was a tricky song emotionally.
At this point, how many songs would you say you’ve written?
Wow. Hundreds at least. I don’t know. Maybe 500…600?
How do you stay inspired to keep writing?
You know, I don’t know the answer to that. I sometimes think that I’ll run out eventually, but our lives are just so rich. I keep my antenna up all the time. I’m always looking for titles and ideas that are strong enough to hang a four minute song on. There’s always a big junk yard to go through to look for something to play with in songwriting.
What’s your favorite thing about you get to do?
It’s the exchange with people. It just builds you up. It’s a performing art. You get the feedback right in front of you. To see that effect on people when you’ve done a good job, and it’s moving a poignant for an audience – that’s the best feeling. That’s what it’s all about.