Photo: Daniel Mendoza/Recording Academy
Billy Strings Talks New LP, Being Billed As Bluegrass' Future, Heavy Metal & Mental Health
Once you hear Billy Strings do his thing, you'll get it. His unhinged flat-picking guitar playing kicks the tradition of bluegrass into new territory with one foot while keeping the other firmly planted in the genre's rich tradition. As a young artist, his songwriting, already scary good, seems to only be improving. For good reason, Stings is being called the future of bluegrass. And even though seeing is believing, and he proves he's worthy of the attention every night he takes the stage, that's still a lot of pressure for one person.
We sat down with Strings recently at Newport Folk to talk about how he handles the challenges of all the attention and success, how other genres like rock and metal have weaved their way into his astonishing guitar work, the collaborative process of making his forthcoming album, HOME, and more.
You're new album HOME is on its way, Sept. 27. Can you tell us how it was recorded?
We made it back in January over about 10 days or 12 days I think.
So lots of live tracking then?
Yeah, we just all were isolated in different booths and stuff, but we just try to lay the tracks down and I'll play it and live track it. Yeah, I think most of the songs we just end up doing that way. It kind of feels more live that way too than if we played the music and then did the vocals and then did this and that. We kind of just do it all at once like we do at our concert, you know?
I think there's a collaborative element of that, and a collaboration is a theme to this album. Why is it important to you, as a solo artist?
For me it's just I love playing music with my friends. Like I just did with Molly Tuttle up there [on stage at Newport Folk], but yeah, Jerry Douglas played some on the record and sometimes collaborating with people like that, it's just inspiring. It kind of puts a fire underneath you and keeps you going. When I get to play with my heroes, it really inspires me. It's good for you.
I am so happy to share that my next studio album - #HOME - will be released on September 27th with @RounderRecords. Preorder begins July 12.
40 brand new Fall tour dates are ON SALE NOW: https://t.co/he0cH4Wgeh
Animation: @steadyprime pic.twitter.com/3BkW6kriP7
— Billy Strings (@bstrings1) June 25, 2019
There are a lot of the people who want you to carry the torch for bluegrass, bring traditional bluegrass into the new generation. Obviously, you know the history and you come from the history, but you're doing something new. How do you navigate that as an artist?
A lot of people have said, and I would believe that it's true that you kind of have to know the origins and to know traditional bluegrass before you can then branch out. I think there's something true about that. I grew up playing bluegrass with my dad and very traditional bluegrass, I cut my teeth on it, but then somewhere along the way when I was a teenager, I got into heavy metal and rock and roll and all sorts of different music as I grew up and branched out a little bit.
As a writer, I try not to block off those other genres for inspiration as well. I'll let all the rock and roll and the metal and all that stuff that I've listened to inspire me while songwriting just as much as a bluegrass. And also, even if I'm writing a song that's not very bluegrass, it sort of comes out because that's how I learned how to play. It always kind of, you'll hear that flavor in there, I guess.
Yeah, is there something specific about rock or metal that has worked its way into your style?
I think it's more just about our live show. I think the most important thing that we do is our live show. I think that's where we are really best seen is on stage, in a concert venue somewhere. We're gonna make records and we're going to do our best to recreate that live setting on an album, but we're a live music band. Every night it's different. We could play the same song, but it's totally sometimes different. I don't know, we just try to jam with each other.
How often do you practice to play at such a high level?
I mostly even play on stage every day. Sometimes I never get to practice because I'm always on stage. I was talking to my friend David Grisman about that the other day and like, "Man, I never have time to practice." He's like, "Well you could work up new songs and play them and we do that." But, we play a lot of gigs, and sometimes when I'm not playing gigs, I finally get a day or two off after several weeks on tour. Man, it's almost like you just want to take a nap and catch up.
But, I would like to practice more. Honestly, I think I could do better about that. I'd like to write more music. I'd like to get out my metronome more and practice with that. I'd like to just practice learning my fretboard, everything. I mean I'm still trying to get better.
You spend a lot of time playing shows and touring. For a lot of artists, mental health has become a topic we talk about now, where it used to be avoided. What do you do to kind of stay grounded when you're away from home?
The main thing that I do is I see a therapist and I talk to that person and I've been doing that for a while. I had a lot of anxiety back in January maybe before we started making the record and I don't think it was based around the record. It's based around a lot of other things. Things when I was young and just everything, everybody has their own troubles and that kind of things, but certain things can haunt you or if you keep things inside and don't talk about them, that stuff can come out as an anxiety.
It's almost if you have a pot of boiling water, all these emotions and things that you wish you would have said or maybe thought about or this or that and you put the lid on, it starts boiling and a little bit of steam is gonna get out no matter how hard you hold that lid on. Might as well just take it off.
That's what I do is I talk, I see a therapist and I would recommend it to anybody who struggles at all in that way. I think it is an important thing to talk about and I'm certainly not ashamed of that or anything. I have to work on myself and I think a lot of other people do too. I've lost a lot of friends to, whether it's substance abuse or depression and anxiety and that kind of stuff is very real to me.
Unfortunately, I do believe in this line of work as a musician, entertainer, an actor or actress, those kinds of folks, because there is this added amount of pressure, I think a lot of times anxiety and depression sometimes, I think a lot of musicians deal with that or I think maybe a lot of therapists or psychiatrists see a lot of musicians or entertainers because we're like in the public eye and there's a lot of stress involved.
A lot of musicians depend on things. I know a lot of people that are in bands drink a lot and that kind of stuff. It's easy to do. People are always handing your stuff too man when you're out there. People are offering you everything and it's hard to say no when there's a party and it's, until you start to have anxiety and stuff and that's, man, I just, I do everything I can to try to stay healthy. I try to make sure I get enough sleep, make sure I drink enough water, don't be doing drugs except for psychedelics, but yeah, just try to take care of myself and stay zenned out brother.
One more question: What's inspiring you right now?
I think my earlier life, I use [it] as inspiration a lot. When I grew up, I grew up in a small town and I saw a lot of drugs and stuff, a lot of substance abuse and I saw also that those people drove themselves down into a dark hole and that they can never get out of, prison and overdose and stuff like that. It's like, I didn't want to be a bum. I wanted to do something good with my life. I think just seeing that kind of helped me run towards the light in the right direction.
It's great that we get to travel and spread the light and meet people and play music for people and hopefully brighten somebody's day. Also, I've got to mention my father who taught me how to play. It's just great to sort of carry his torch in a way and to kind of, I'm doing it for him and from my mom and him.