Jarrod Dickenson’s been on an uphill mountain train these last few years. After spending nigh-on a decade rockin’ the whiskey-washed stages of Nashville, this intimate country-folk songwriter is finally rising to recognition. With a poet’s soul and a talent for narrative songwriting, Dickenson had earned a loyal fanbase both stateside and in the UK for his sweeping, big-hearted brand of Americana that’s steeped in the American literary tradition. His songs are populated by a motley crew of desperate lovers, washed-up desperados, depraved sinners and timeless balladeers.
His latest record, ‘Ready The Horses’ carries on this literary bent and his Americana roots, whilst delving into his love affair with the soul and gospel triumphs of the 60s and 70s. He spoke to Gigsoup’s Matt George Lovett about the genesis of his new and brassy influences, some of the odder tracks on the album, and his upcoming UK tour.
‘Ready The Horses’ has a more soul-inflected sound than you’ve ever had before. Was that something you were consciously aiming for or was it more an organic songwriting development?
I think a lot of it comes down to what I’ve been listening to lately. I’ve always been a big fan of blues and soul music, but the last couple of years I’ve been really digging into the great soul records of the ’60s and ’70s. I’m specifically talking about the great Muscle Shoals and Stax records by artists like Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Otis Redding, Aretha, Sam & Dave, etc. Those artists and those records are special. They get inside you. So, while I didn’t necessarily set out to “write some soul tunes”, some of that was bound to seep into the writing. Once the songs started coming together, and it became obvious that they were leaning that direction I knew immediately that when it came time to make the record I wanted the instrumentation and arrangements to be sort of a tip of the hat to the Muscle Shoals records I’d become so obsessed with.
A lot (but not all) of the album has quite a lavish instrumentation. Hammond organs, gospel choirs and brass sections. How are you planning on approaching that in a live setting? Will you be bringing a large backing band with you or will the songs take on a more stripped-back form for the UK tour?
I’ll be bringing essentially the same group of guys on the road with me that recorded on the album. It’s a group of very close friends, who also happen to be phenomenal players. Sadly, we can’t exactly bring a Hammond organ or a big brass section out with us, but fans should still expect a pretty rockin’ show.
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This album was recorded on two inch tape reels in the UK. What was the thinking behind that, given the album has such an Americana feel?
The decision to record in the UK simply came down to timing and budget. I was already over with the full band supporting The Waterboys for 21 dates across the UK. My good friend, David Ford, knew a guy named Dave Lynch (not that David Lynch) who owned a great studio in Eastbourne called Echo Zoo Studios. Lynch had just gotten an old 2″ tape machine in, and offered us a rate that I could almost just barely afford, so we decided to just go straight into his studio for a few days immediately following the tour. I think it was the perfect place for us. We all felt really at home there. Lynch is a fantastic engineer, and got really good sounds. As a band, we were pretty tight together since we’d just come off a month-long tour. So we went in, played and sang the songs live while the tape machine ran. It was a great experience.
Some of the songs from the album (like ‘California’ and ‘Your Heart Belongs To Me’) are reworked versions of songs you’ve previously released. What was the thinking behind that? Did you feel the previous versions didn’t capture them right or are you just trying them out in a new light?
With ‘California’, that was a song I’d written years ago, and had put on my first album, but was never really happy with that initial version. I wrote the song while we were in the middle of recording that first album, and we were excited about the new tune, so we decided to record it as well. I’d never even played it live before we recorded it, so the song hadn’t really had a chance to show its true self yet, so to speak. Since then, it’s been a song that I’ve played at almost every show for the last 8 or 9 years. It’s one people always asked about. So I decided to give it another run on this album, and record it the way we’ve been doing it live all these years since that first album.
‘Your Heart’ is one that I recorded for my “Songs From Willow St” EP, but I always knew I’d record it again when it came time to make the new full-length album. I always heard it as a duet in my head, and over the last couple of years it’s one that my wife Claire has sung with me on stage countless times. It’s always a special moment in the set for us, and it became clear that we had to make that the version on the record as well. Her voice is perfect for it, and it’s one of my favourite songs on the album.
The raggedy blues track ‘Gold Rush’ has to be the oddball of the album. Where did it come from, given it’s so different from the rest of the album’s sound?
That song started out as a song about the California gold rush of the 1800s, and as many songs often do, it turned into a song about greed and corruption on Wall Street. I wanted it to be a raucous, menacing, down-and-dirty Tom Waits-ish blues tune. We had a blast recording it. Guitar amps were turned up as loud as they’d go. The Hammond was mean and dirty. David Ford (who co-wrote the song with me) was on the tubular bells, and our drummer was on the studio floor with a hammer and a metal serving tray. It sounds nasty, and I love it.
In the same vein, ‘A Cowboy & The Moon’ is quite different to the rest of the album, it feels like a love letter to old-school country music, complete with fiddles and an accordion. Where’d the inspiration for that come from?
Yes, that’s another oddball, so to speak, though I must say, I prefer making records with different kinds of songs strewn throughout the track listing. I’m not one who believes every song should sound the same on an album. I get bored too easily for that. I enjoy writing in different styles, exercising different muscles, if you will.
‘Cowboy’ was kind of the antithesis of ‘Gold Rush’ when it came to production and arrangement. I wanted it to be sparse and lonesome and nostalgic. I wanted the listener to feel like they were crouched around a campfire, listening to a story about an old cowboy. I knew that song had to be me on acoustic, an accordion and a fiddle, and nothing else. I felt like that kind of instrumentation and treatment would make the story come alive, and draw the listener in. It’s another highlight on the record for me.
You’re kicking off your UK tour with two days at Country2Country Festival. How do you feel about sharing the bill with names like The Zac Brown Band and Marty Stuart.
I’m excited to be a part of the C2C Fest this year. I’ve never been, but I’ve heard great things from other artists and music fans alike. My music fits somewhere closer to the “Americana” tag than true “country music”, but I’m honoured to be on the bill with those guys. We’re really looking forward to those shows.
You’ve earned quite the loyal fan base in the UK. You do you feel about returning to the UK for the upcoming tour, and showing the fans the new material?
The UK audiences have been great to me these last few years. I can’t wait to get back over to share these songs and this band with them. It’s gonna be a rockin’ good time.