Singer/songwriter and artisan Chad Elliott constantly tells stories. They're floated on chords, tucked between songs, and layered on canvas. As his tales unfold, Elliott's unassuming character and approachability create immediate intimacy. He's the guy at the end of the bar you want to talk to at 2:00 a.m while the glasses are stacked and the jukebox fades.
On his latest release, Redemption Man, Elliott wields a broad stroke of introspective lyricism, gently coaxing the listener’s heart out of submission to ride shotgun on an absorbing journey though life’s challenges and triumphs. Infused with adept guitar work and rich vocals, Elliott’s roots music reveals a brave and hopeful vulnerability that represents the reality we all feel, but rarely have the courage to share aloud.
A few years ago, with only $20 in your pocket, you ventured out to San Francisco and lived with the homeless for a while. What prompted this journey, and how did it affect your music?
I'm not sure I've figured out the entire reason for taking that trip. I mean, it's been eight years since I did it, and I still feel like I'm processing it. It was one of those moments in life when I had an incredible urge to be in an alien environment, where I could just hover among people in an invisible way. Sadly, homelessness provides that in our culture. I ate out of dumpsters, I begged for change, and I slept in the rain for a month.
You know, interestingly enough, I've never directly written a song about this experience, but I do feel it's permeated many of songs I've written since.
Many people comment about how frequently you write new songs. Tell us more about your process.
So far, after 13 years writing, I've created over a thousand, but I've lost the exact count. It depends on the season. Autumn and spring are constant writing seasons for me. I will sit down one day and knock out two songs in the morning after a pot of pressed coffee...then move on, write another and move on. I've learned to record them immediately so I don't forget I wrote them!
In the winter and summer, I'll still get a song that comes in. Usually one a week or every other week. But mostly, those are seasons I'm performing a lot more, or I'm working on my artwork.
Lots of my songs will come in pairs: one good, one not-so-good. I attribute this to my being a twin! I have often wondered what it would sound like to put those pair songs together on an album.
On your new release, Redemption Man, there’s a real evolution of emotion: escape from circumstances, acknowledgement of reality, acceptance of that reality, and hope for a new future. What’s the full message you’re communicating?
The selection of the songs was very important, of course. I used old and new songs, and arranged them to be kind of a journey. It's an internal path for the listeners to follow. If you sit down and take in the lyrics and melodies, you can be on that road with me...busting out of town leaving it all behind, facing hardships, and pining for home.
It's my hope this album is a reflection of the roads I've been down and the lives I've been touched by along the way, very much like a travel journal.
Legendary roots-rock and folk musician Bo Ramsey (Lucinda Williams, Greg Brown, The Pines, Pieta Brown) produced Redemption Man. How did this partnership come about?
I've listened and admired Bo's work with Lucinda Williams and Greg Brown for years. He has been one of those dream producers for me, and often I'd think, "I'd love to work with that guy and see how he'd make these songs sound.”
I met Ramsey's son, Benson, in Memphis at a Folk Alliance conference, and I began thinking about asking him to produce my next album. It took awhile, but I finally worked up the courage to send him a couple songs. I got in touch with him and he was interested in hearing more. So I sent the roughs for the album and we started getting everything lined up.
What was the most surprising aspect of those sessions?
The sessions were great! Bo and I agreed that recording live in the studio would be important to us both. I trusted him to line up a bass player and drummer (Jon Penner and Steve Hayes) who he'd worked with for years. What was most surprising was how fast it all went. I think the first song we recorded was in one take, and there were several others where we cycled back and chose the very first take.
It was a great feeling to be playing with such seasoned professionals and trust that they know just where I'm about to go in a song. It made me confident and comfortable while recording, so I could really concentrate on giving a solid performance, rather than dubbing over tracks.
As you mention, there are a number of talented musicians on the new CD, but your live shows are often you and a guitar. Do audiences appreciate this simple intimacy?
I think it allows the audience to hear the songs as they were written: me and a guitar. My audiences like the stories just as much as the tunes, and being up there alone, I can improvise more with the mix of storytelling and singing. It allows the listener to really feel connected to the song, and it weeds out the weaker songs, because if you can't play it solo, it's probably not a strong song.
You have a number of awards. Your latest song, “Same Old Way”, won the 2009 Woody Guthrie Festival songwriting contest. Your breakout song, “How’s the Weather?”, was voted a Top 20 New Folk song by Just Plain Folks. You're also a 2008 Kerrville New Folk finalist and a Folk Alley.com open mic winner. What does this recognition mean to you, and how does it encourage you to keep moving forward?
It's wonderful to be recognized for my songwriting. It not only feels good to get people to know my songs, but it also feels good to be seen as a songwriter's writer. Most of the awards are blind listens, where the competitors don't have to have slick press kits, or a certain manager to win. The heart of the song and the delivery of that song is what counts in these competitions, and I've been fortunate to receive recognition for that. I'm very grateful.
But I also know not to place too much stock in that process. Competition can lead you into a dangerous field as a writer. If you start writing songs just to win contests, it never leads to much of anything with substance.
In addition to being an accomplished singer/songwriter, you’re also a talented artist. Please tell us about the new Artsong Series.
Yep, I went to school for art, mainly sculpting and painting. For years, I've tried to combine my love for writing songs with my love for visual art. So Artsong is a series of lyric paintings.
Often I scribble my songs in a journal with doodles next to them. I took some of those sketches and made full color paintings of them. In a gallery setting, the viewer is also the listener, as they can listen to mp3s as they see the paintings and read the lyrics.
View the enitre Artsong Series here.
You love to go hiking, especially in the mountains. What song do you sing aloud from the precipice when you think no one is listening?
When I was first writing songs, I was backpacking a lot. I listened to John Denver and Storyhill all the time back then. I have a little backpacker guitar that straps onto my pack. The song I love to sing the most in the mountains is called "Steady On" by Storyhill. It's quite a powerful song about geese flying south for the winter.
*To learn more about Chad Elliott and to purchase Redemption Man (beginning 11-7-09), visit his Web site
*Also purchase Chad Elliott's music on Rhapsody
*Watch Chad perform on YouTube: "Blood on Wood" and "Hold Me Now"
Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou
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10.30.09 @ 2:08p
Great interview with Chad Elliott. Excellent writing. I've recently been listening to releases of early Neil Young stuff when he was a kid in a bar with a guitar (Sugar Mountain- Live at Canterbury House 1968 http://tinyurl.com/y9ocor3), and Chad's comment about only good songs working in that situation reminded me of that CD.
Also listened to Chad's website and really enjoyed his music.
On a barely related subject, I picked up a free iTunes download card at Starbucks this week for a song called "Rise Up" by Diane Birch. Hadn't heard of her before, but I really liked this. http://tinyurl.com/y8vraj4
Love your writing. Keep it coming.
BTW-- got here from your Tweet. :-)
11.3.09 @ 8:19a
Thanks, Dirk! Chad is one talented dude. There are six new videos of him on YouTube - just do a search for Chad Elliott, and you'll find:
“Same Old Way” (From the new disc)
“How’s the Weather?” (The award-winning one mentioned in the article)
“Walking Shoes” (a great example of how he kicks it up a notch!)
“Red Dirt” (great story)
“Willow Song” (lovely example of his voice)
“Shining Stars” (another lovely example of his voice, plus a fun runaway story before it)