meta-scriptJay Farrar On Son Volt's New Album 'Electro Melodier' & The Lifelong Draw Of Electric Guitars, Words & Melodies | GRAMMY.com
Son Volt

Son Volt

Photo: Ismael Quintanilla III

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Jay Farrar On Son Volt's New Album 'Electro Melodier' & The Lifelong Draw Of Electric Guitars, Words & Melodies

During the pandemic, Jay Farrar had more time than ever to craft Son Volt's new album, 'Electro Melodier.' The result is among the 30-year-old band's most personal, oracular and muscular works to date

GRAMMYs/Jul 27, 2021 - 03:44 am

When the Americana heroes Uncle Tupelo broke up during the Clinton administration, they left two unbelievably different rock institutions in their wake. While Wilco spent album after album racing to the brink of experimental chaos before pulling back in the 2000s, Son Volt remained staunchly devoted to the core components of rock 'n' roll storytelling — words, melodies and chord progressions.

Flash forward more than 30 years: The pandemic has given Son Volt’s leader, Jay Farrar, more time to write songs and check out vintage gear. "I had more time to be looking at equipment," the singer/songwriter tells GRAMMY.com. "I came across two amplifiers — one called Electro, the other one Melodier — and I felt like that was emblematic as a title for what I was going for with this record: An emphasis on electric, uptempo, melodic songs."

Farrar couldn't have found two words that better sum up Son Volt's latest, which arrives July 30 via Thirty Tigers. The album is a sequence of well-crafted, warmly-recorded tunes for fans of Tom Pettythe Replacements and Bruce Springsteen. And it's bound to be catnip for those who believe a guitar, a tube amp and a pen comprise the ultimate form of human expression.

GRAMMY.com caught up with Farrar to discuss the road to Electro Melodier, dive into every song on the record and discuss everything from COVID-19 to his 25-year marriage to the civil rights upheaval of 2020.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You mentioned in the press release that the title comes from the names of two vintage amplifiers. Is an electric guitar through a cranked-up tube amp all one needs to genuinely express themselves?

It is if you had the background I had, yes. If you had the background I had, all you need is an acoustic guitar and a small amp and an electric guitar. It took me a while to realize what I would call the Keith Richards method of using small amps to record. You know, you get a bigger sound. On the very first Son Volt record, there's a small amp pictured on the cover.

This time around, with the pandemic, I had more time to be looking at equipment. I came across two amplifiers — one called Electro, the other one Melodier — and I felt like that was emblematic as a title for what I was going for with this record — an emphasis on electric, uptempo, melodic songs. 

What other gear have you been checking out lately?

On the new recording, I used a baritone acoustic guitar, which is an Alvarez. I've also adapted some new guitars to my live [performance] — when I get back to playing live. I recently had some rotator cuff shoulder surgery from playing too much guitar. Forty years of acoustic guitar took its toll, so like a pitcher in baseball, I got the rotator cuff repair. 

I was told to maybe find a thinner-bodied guitar, so I came across an old Kay Speed Demon guitar that I just put some acoustic pickups in and it sounds like an acoustic guitar. So, that's what I'll be going for whenever we start playing live.

Your debut album Trace just celebrated its 30th birthday. What feelings or memories about its making come to mind?

You know, I was living in New Orleans at the time and I had a lot of my equipment in St. Louis. Some of the other guys in the band were in Minneapolis, so I spent a lot of time driving north to south, up and down Highway 61. I used to take the 55 and the 35, just kind of soaking up those parts of the country. 

I also remember that I think I hooked up a U-Haul trailer to a Honda Civic — one of the hatchbacks — so I would fit all the equipment in there. Crazy things like that that I wouldn't do now, but I did it. [Chuckles]. I put the expenses for that record on my girlfriend's credit card and away we went.

When you mentioned Highway 61, I remembered that tune ["Afterglow 61"] from Okemah and the Melody of Riot. Is that a place you continually return to in your mind?

Yeah, it runs right along the Mississippi here, near St. Louis, as well as in New Orleans and all the way up from Minneapolis. It's a thread that follows the river and, usually, good music follows the river and the road.

To connect the timeline to Electro Melodier, where would you place this record on the arc of your overall development?

That's a good question. It's hard to put it in context, I guess. Since it was a pandemic record, it was a much more hybrid approach to recording. We started doing this Zoom, remote-type recording on the song "These Are the Times," and sort of realized that some of that synergy and chemistry was lost over recording through a computer in a remote location.

So, some of us got together with masks in the studio and brought that chemistry back. Yet, at the same time, it made sense for Mark Spencer, who's the multi-instrumentalist, to add his parts because he has his own studio in Brooklyn. It was kind of a hybrid approach that I felt worked on this recording. I think the pandemic made the ingredients for this record to sound and be different.

At the very least, remote recording means the bassist and drummer can't look each other in the eye. You lose the pocket.

Yeah, absolutely. There were myriad communication-type problems since everyone had a computer with speakers and you're in different studios with audio monitors. We were just trying to mute the feedback loops from the microphone to the speaker, whether it's a computer, headphones, microphone… It was just too much.

Son Volt. Photo: Auset Sarno

Think we could go track-by-track to see what each song kicks up in your mind?

Sure, we can give it a shot.

Let's start with "Reverie."

I think that song represents what the recording is about: Getting back to basics. It starts with a melody. The song itself is just an exercise with wordplay. There's a baritone electric guitar on that song kind of inspired by Glen Campbell's work on "Wichita Lineman."

What can you tell me about "Arkey Blue"?

There's a bar in Bandera, Texas, which is outside of San Antonio, that I visited once. Its claim to fame was that Hank Williams, Sr. played there and carved his name in a table. So, I had some time off, went there, took a photo of the place. I have a sign in my music room where I play music. So, when I was writing that song, I just sort of used that Arkey Blue bar name as a placeholder title for the song itself. 

A lot of lines from that song are directly from a speech Pope Francis gave, talking about turbulent rains never before seen, essentially saying that the pandemic is Earth's way of fighting back. That just sort of blew my mind, the Pope saying that, so that wound up in the song. Ultimately, I just sort of felt like the subject matter in the song has kind of a Noah's Ark vibe, so "Arkey Blue" stuck even though it has meanings that go off in different directions.

Did Hank really carve his name in the table, or was that a rumor?

Ah… well, it's there. It definitely looks the right part. The whole place is straight out of a time warp when you go in there, so it's totally believable that it was Hank, Sr.'s name carved in there. They do have it kind of roped off so people don't mess with it.

How about "The Globe"?

That song, I think, was written through a period of turmoil, both in this country — George Floyd's death protests, Black Lives Matter — and looking at news across the globe. People in Belarus or wherever getting clamped down and their freedoms being curtailed. I think the gist of that song just came out of "We're all in this together across the world." A nod of solidarity to those in this country and across the world.

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And "Diamonds and Cigarettes"?

I guess that one could have been called "Ode to a Long-Term Relationship." The clock just turned 25 years of marriage for me. I think the pandemic also made one realize the people around you are incredibly important. So, that was one takeaway. Laura Cantrell sang backups on that one. I've known her since about 1995. She was interviewing when we were playing the first Son Volt shows back in 1995.

What do you appreciate about her approach to the tune, or just her voice in general?

It kind of blew me away. Again, Mark Spencer, who's the multi-instrumentalist in the band, also plays with Laura Cantrell as her guitar player, occasionally. They had a rapport. I know Laura and her husband, Jeremy, so it was an all-in-the-family type of experience. I felt that she really did a great job.

Where does "Lucky Ones" fit into the puzzle?

There were always cross-currents of R&B, soul and country music that I've always liked, whether it was Dan Penn, Charlie Rich or the Flying Burrito Brothers. That was my take, or my attempt at tapping into that aesthetic via rhythm and blues and country soul.

I remember the old cover of the Burritos' "Sin City," so obviously, that DNA runs deep.

[Shyly] Yeah, yeah. For sure.

And "War on Misery"?

A couple of years ago, some kids in town in St. Louis had put a manifesto in my mailbox called "War on Misery." It was kind of a self-published socialist manifesto. I could concur. I could relate. So, that title kind of stuck with me. I was trying to go with a Lightnin' Hopkins type sound. Lightnin' Hopkins would often perform with a regular guitar tuned way down, so he had this deep, baritone sound.

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How about "Livin' in the USA"?

It didn't start out as an intentional thing, but in retrospect, I see it as a nod to songs like Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" or Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World." Both of those songs have a similar thematic thing going on. I feel like those songs establish a thematic tradition, so I was just kind of taking it and running with it.

 But yeah, again, a lot of turmoil going on and looking around and seeing things that don't add up and putting them into the song.

Both songs are antimatter national anthems. Widely misunderstood, too.

Yeah, exactly. There could be some of that that happens with this one as well.

How about "Someday is Now"?

We started to veer off into prog-rock land a bit with that one, but we consciously kept in check. There were a few times in the recording when we had to pull it back from sounding too much like Rush but I think it ultimately sounded more like Zeppelin.

Has prog always been part of your creative stew?

Not so much for me, but it's in there somewhere, I suppose. Once it gets in there, you can't shake it out completely.

Tell me about "Sweet Refrain."

There are some COVID-19 references, I think, in there. "Looking out the window panes" — I spent a lot of time doing that in the last year and a half. Again, there's some references to relationships and that kind of thing, but there's also a line in there: "Another hero is gone," which references people that passed during COVID, like John Prine

That song is also an example of a stream-of-consciousness type, where it kind of goes from one verse to the next and jumps around. The final verse references some of the folks in Benton, Mississippi — [Jimmy] "Duck" Holmes and Skip James. I've used that tuning before and I felt like I wanted to tip a hat to that tuning.

And how about "The Levee On Down"? That symbolism weighs heavy in blues and country.

Yeah. I live close to the Mississippi River, so I've driven up and down the levees. They usually have roads on them. You can drive up and down. I was going to make a bad joke about a Chevy on the levee, but I'm not going to do that. 

I'm going to say that from driving up and down Highway 61 into Cape Girardeau, Missouri, when you go about an hour and a half south of St. Louis, there's the Trail of Tears crossing where the Cherokee Indians crossed. Many died on their way to Oklahoma due to the Trail of Tears forced march, and the person that was part of that was Andrew Jackson. He's on the $20 bill.

Then, we've got "These Are the Times."

That was very much a COVID reference. Changing times, and this is where we're at. Let's try to find our way through this.

We're almost through with the record. "Rebetika."

I came across that word in reference to a certain kind of Greek folk music that was described as being close to blues. It had maybe a similar impetus as blues. I just found that to be kind of fascinating. I took the title "Rebetika" and just kind of ran with it.

Then, after "The Globe / Prelude," we close out with "Like You."

Yeah, that was a stripped-down version—almost like a demo—of "The Globe." We were recording that very much in the [midst of the pandemic]; I think it was when the Black Lives Matter protests were going on. We actually released, I think, on Bandcamp during that time frame.

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I always tend to forget about the very last song, but then it sticks in my mind. I guess the way I would summarize this whole project is that I had more time to work on the song structures and arrangements — the writing itself — and more time spent recording the vocals. Really, all of it. 

It spanned the course months where often, in the past, the recording would happen between the gigs. With that song, Jacob Detering, who did the engineering, played a sort of drone, a Mellotron-type instrument on that. More time, more team. I think those were elements that went into the making of this record.

Gary Louris Of The Jayhawks On Barely Listening To Roots Rock & His First Solo Album In 13 Years, 'Jump For Joy'

Wallows Press Photo 2024
Wallows

Photo: Aidan Zamiri

interview

Wallows Talk New Album 'Model,' "Entering Uncharted Territory" With World Tour & That Unexpected Sabrina Carpenter Cover

On the heels of releasing their amped-up third album, 'Model,' alt-rock trio Wallows detail how their "very unabashed" approach has expanded — and landed them in arenas for the first time.

GRAMMYs/May 30, 2024 - 07:11 pm

Over the past five years, Dylan Minnette, Cole Preston and Braedan Lemasters — together, known as alternative rock band Wallows — have acutely constructed a sonic landscape of earworm guitar hooks, snappy drums and sing-along lyrics. And their third album, Model, helps lift their career into a new sphere of guitar-driven stardom.

Wallows' growth from the indie-pop breakouts of 2019's Clairo-assisted "Are You Bored Yet?" to full-fledged alt-rock stars is abundantly clear across Model's 12 tracks. Produced by GRAMMY-winning alt-rock whisperer John Congleton (who also helmed Wallows' 2019 debut album, Nothing Happens), Model amps up their vintage-meets-contemporary sound. It's an album that sounds perfectly written for arenas — and that's by design. 

On The Model World Tour, which kicks off on Aug. 6, the trio will hit arenas and amphitheaters in North America, Europe and the UK, and Australia and New Zealand, including iconic venues like Madison Square Garden, Red Rocks and The Forum. With the tour in mind, they wrote wavy melodies fit for the masses to sing along, like on the racing "Your Apartment" or the howling chorus of "You (Show Me Where My Days Went)."

If the polished sound of Model sounds like the work of a band who has sharpened their talents for decades, that's because it is. Though they made their official introduction as Wallows with the 2018 EP Spring, Minnette, Preston and Lemasters — all in their late 20s — have been performing together since they were just 11 years old.

As Preston asserts, their longtime partnership has resulted in "this kind of synergy happening." It's seemingly helped them become more vulnerable, too, as Model sees the Wallows guys singing overtly about love for the first time, like on lead single "Calling After Me": "I knew the feeling would be forming/ After I took a look into your eyes/ But are you ready for it, darling?"

In celebration of the release of Model, Minnette, Lemasters and Preston mused to GRAMMY.com about their creative journey, why they recently became the unlikely scorn of Sabrina Carpenter fans, and how they're "filling a space" in mainstream alt rock.

You're about to embark on an arena tour, playing venues like Madison Square Garden and The Forum for the very first time. Does this feel like a new phase in your evolution as a band?

Braeden Lemasters: Yeah, I think it does. When we started the band seven years ago, when I look back it's been a very natural progression; it's not like we went straight from 200 capacity clubs to arenas. 

We've gone through the stages and right growth, and now we're entering this uncharted territory. We actually haven't even opened up at these venues for anyone, so it'll be our first time playing an arena. We have no idea what to expect.

Model as an album sounds bigger than your past ones, especially songs like "Anytime, Always" which may sonically fit right in at an arena with its sing-along hook. Did you have the arena tour in mind when you were working on Model?

Cole Preston: Yeah, this record was the first time we did know the tour routing [during the album process]. It didn't necessarily change the way that we worked; we always adapted a similar approach to writing where we naturally want it to be catchy and full, which all lends itself to the live show. But understanding that we're going to have this level of a moment, we'd need to make a record that represents that moment that belongs there.

You guys are an alternative rock three-piece, which is rare in today's musical climate. Does it seem that way to you?

Dylan Minette: Yeah, I definitely feel like there's a space where we're sort of filling [with] the way our music is and sounds. There's other bands that are playing the same rooms and can, but all of us feel pretty different from one another. 

Our music is very unabashed, and there's nothing we're trying to subdue or be cool, or worry about it sounding too pop. I'm not saying we're the only ones doing that, because that's obviously not true. But our favorite bands growing up — like Kings of Leon, Arcade Fire or The Killers — weren't afraid to go for it and let the music be larger than life. There used to be a lot more bands that just dominated and went for it, so we try to make sure we're filling that space that isn't really being filled right now. 

Were you guys always interested in this genre? I would think for the majority of people from your generation, the inclination would be to do bedroom pop  or electronic music, and not to start a band.

Lemasters: The interest for me stems from my dad, who was a guitar player in Ohio  local bands. I alway thought it was so normal; I'd be 5 years old and my dad would be playing a stratocaster around the house and listening to the Beatles. He bought me a guitar when I was really young and taught me how to play, so I've had this connection to these classic bands. 

When I met Dylan, we bonded over that, because he also liked that music at a young age. I think it was rare for a kid our age to like that kind of music. Cole was also just a very talented musician at a young age too. So we all loved band music at a young age and wanted to form one; there was no other reason than that. We didn't have to search out our passion for it. It was already there.

Speaking of, I've loved your distinctive covers, from "My Worst Enemy" by Lit (which you put a melancholy look at it) to "Espresso" just recently. What's the key to a solid cover and how do you decide what songs to put your spin on it?

Minette: We definitely don't have songs in our pocket. We always try to do something unexpected or unconventional to get people talking about it, otherwise what's the point? 

Cole recommended "Espresso," which I hadn't heard at the time — but if he's saying this new, popular song is good, I trust him. When I listened to it, I thought it'd be great, and when we worked on the first version it had a drum machine and was funkier. When we stripped it back and it became more emo, it was hilarious. 

Though there are some Sabrina Carpenter fans who are really mad I attempted to sing that song. "You could never be Sabrina!" I'm like, "I know I can never be Sabrina!" But you know what? She texted me recently and gave the seal of approval. That's all we needed.

Since you've all been playing together in some capacity since you were 11, what's kept you together all these years?

Preston: When we were young, our brains were super mushy and we all had a big influence on each other as people. We're all very different now as people in a lot of ways, but we all know each other enough to predict how someone will feel or react about something. 

So there's this kind of synergy happening because, since we were 11, we were practicing every day and performing original music, and we just didn't stop. By the time we became Wallows officially, we had been a band for seven or eight years at that point. 

Speaking of, I know you recently connected with the person who indirectly inspired your name? What's the story behind that?

Minette: So Wallows was named after a skate spot in Hawaii on Oahu, which we first heard about from the video game Tony Hawk's Underground where it was part of the Hawaii map. Braeden played it growing up and at a certain point he said it'd be a cool album title. Eventually, when we were thinking of band names, we realized Wallows would be a great name. 

Last week, we were on "The Today Show" and they said "We have a surprise for you!" And it was a message from Tony Hawk, which was so full circle. To go from being kids with all ambitions and dreams, and now Tony Hawk is surprising us — it was crazy. If our 13-year-old selves were experiencing this, that'd be insane.

Model was produced by John Congleton, who was also behind your first album. What brought you together again for this third record?

Lemasters: When we first started making music, we worked with John; he made some St. Vincent records and we really respected his work. We were just naive enough to be so excited to go with him and we didn't meet anybody else at the time. He did our first EP and first album. There's something really special about that connection and bond you make, that first time. 

For our second album, we worked with Ariel Rechtshaid, which was incredible and who we always wanted to work with. When we decided to work on Model, we didn't know who to go with, but we went in with Congleton again to record some demos for no project at all. We asked him what he pictured for us regarding a new album, and everything he said is exactly how we were feeling. 

I also always admired an artist working with a producer multiple times, like Nigel Godrich with Radiohead or George Martin with the Beatles; there's a camaraderie where you always know where you've been. So it was a no-brainer to go with John again for Model. I think it's our best work yet, and best production yet, and that's largely because of his passion for the project. 

What's the most gratifying part of the musical process as an artist: writing and producing, or going out and performing them on tour?

Lemasters: It's such a hard question, but my answer would be it's whatever process you're currently experiencing. Writing and recording is so exciting, but going on tour and seeing people sing the songs is the most rewarding thing. I know that's the most cop-out answer. 

Does it change over time?

Minette: Exactly. It's a cycle, when you're on tour you're thinking, "I can't wait to go back into the studio" by the end for sure. I'm interested to see what happens when time slows down to step away from both and take a step back. I don't think we're near that, but I'm already thinking ahead to the next album, and we haven't even toured this album yet! 

Right now, I'm more excited for this tour than ever, but I'm also more nervous. It all adds to the excitement and intrigue of it.

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Richard Thompson
Richard Thompson

Photo: David Kaptein

list

10 Essential Tracks By Richard Thompson: "Night Comes In," "Shoot Out the Lights," "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," & More

Richard Thompson's gobsmacking guitar playing, keen storytelling and evocative voice changed folk and rock forever. Ahead of new album 'Ship to Shore,' press play on 10 essential tracks.

GRAMMYs/May 30, 2024 - 02:03 pm

Richard Thompson remains something of a cult rocker rather than a bona fide rock star — but there are few similarly worthy candidates for the genre's personification on earth.

First of all, he's one of rock's undersung triple threats. "Richard's been one of my favorite guitar players for a very long time," said Jeff Tweedy, who produced and played on Thompson's 2015 album Still. "When I think about it, he's also one of my favorite songwriters and favorite singers."

Thompson's 2021 memoir, Beeswing, renders him something like rock's Forrest Gump: By the tender age of 19, he'd co-founded Fairport Convention, seen Hendrix shred and turned down a birthday invite from Paul McCartney.

He had also pretty much solidified his artistry as an emotion-forward, English-Scottish yawp who was equally virtuosic on acoustic and electric guitar. And Thompson's probing lyrics continue to twist the knife, again and again.

His guitar work has inspired scores of imitators, but nobody's played the instrument like Thompson. In retrieving the bagpipe's drone, his music didn't become old-timey or quaint; rather, it enabled him to tear the roof off.

Crank up his introductory calling card "Roll Over Vaughn Williams"; his roiling last album, 13 Rivers; and anything in between: Thompson's electric guitar will spin your head like a top. And on the acoustic, he's muscular, searching and incisive: both his Acoustic Classics discs will ravish you.

Happily, Thompson is still making some of the strongest music of his career. His new album, Ship to Shore, is a taut yet spacious new offering. After the sturm und drang of the modern-rocking 13 Rivers, mellower, rootsier tracks like "Freeze," "The Day That I Give In" and "Life's a Bloody Show" seem to loop back to the artist's essence.

With a whopping 19 studio albums since the early 1970s — six with his ex-wife Linda Thompson — to boil down Thompson's discography into essential tracks is a bit daunting. From here, seek out underrated '80s albums like Hand of Kindness; middle-of-the-road yet satisfying '90s works like Mock Tudor, and of course, his inspired work in the 2010s and 2020s.

But for now, if you're a Thompson newbie, read on for 10 songs you must hear by the three-time GRAMMY nominee.

"Roll Over Vaughn Williams" (Henry the Human Fly, 1972)

"If [Henry the Human Fly] was a statement of intent, then the opening track was the distillation of the statement," Thompson wrote in Beeswing.

Indeed, while "Roll Over Vaughn Williams" isn't the strongest song he ever wrote, it's a perfect opening salvo: a 22-year-old Thompson, emancipated from English folk-rockers Fairport Convention, sounds his strange, beautiful clarion call.

"Live in fear," Thompson commands between bramble-like guitar runs — a thesis he'd fully air out on I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, his first classic album.

"The Calvary Cross" (I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, 1974)

I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight is typically bandied about as Thompson's masterpiece, with or without Linda. Arguably, that honorific might go to Shoot Out the Lights; when Thompson's age caught up to his precocious, world-weary persona, the results were pure magic.

That's nitpicking, though. Front to back, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight is phenomenal, and a crucial entryway to Thompson's musicality and worldview.

Every song is terrific, but the doomy, circuitous "The Calvary Cross" is the first to smack you in the face. (It also invents Jason Molina, right down to the fragile whine in the Magnolia Electric Co. frontman's tenor.)

"The End of the Rainbow" (I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, 1974)

Probably the darkest non-metal song ever written by a 23-year-old, "The End of the Rainbow" begins with Thompson addressing "you little horror/ Safe at your mother's breast."

The unknowing infant has no idea what they're in for: your father is a bully, your sister is a whore, tycoons and barrow boys will take everything you've got. "Every loving handshake is just another man to beat," Thompson sings, steely-eyed — knowing too much, too early.

"Night Comes In" (Pour Down Like Silver, 1975)

The year I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight dropped, the Thompsons converted to Sufism. Their faith would inform a couple of inessential albums, like 1978's First Light and 1979's Sunnyvista — but first, they'd release a work of gobsmacking potency and spirituality.

Pour Down Like Silver is the only Thompsons album that truly goes toe-to-toe with Shoot Out the Lights. Its first masterpiece, "Night Comes In," is a long walk home — a majestic meditation on Thompson's Sufi initiation.

"Lose my mind in dance forever," he sings, as the languid verse flows into the vertiginous chorus. "Turn my world around."

"Dimming of the Day" (Pour Down Like Silver, 1975)

Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, David Gilmour, and others covered this astonishing ballad for very good reasons.

"Dimming of the Day" is a love song genuinely worthy of the Old Testament, sung with quiet power by Linda, accompanied only by her husband's acoustic guitar, backing vocal, banjo, and other light overdubs.

Has there ever been a lyric of romantic devotion like "You pull me like the moon pulls on the tide"? Or "I'm living for the night we steal away"?

The track concludes Pour Down Like Silver with a perfect denouement in a solo guitar performance of James Scott Skinner's "Dargai." Six years later, the Thompsons would smack down their romantic dream for good.

"Shoot Out the Lights" (Shoot Out the Lights, 1982)

"I know people call Shoot Out the Lights a break-up album, but I can honestly say that was never the intention," Thompson later told Uncut. "[The songs] were all written a year before we split up, so people can think what they like."

Luckily, this pesky fact doesn't undermine the unique power of Shoot Out the Lights — a perfect, eight-song monument to disillusionment featuring Richard's sharpest writing and Linda's most empathetic singing.

The title track, one of Thompson's ultimate guitar showcases, is an unquestionable highlight. The lyrics, about some sort of crepuscular gunman sneaking through the night, are beside the point; his neck-snapping soloing tells the entire story.

"Wall of Death" (Shoot Out the Lights, 1982)

Much like Thompson, rock heroes R.E.M. knew how to conjure pop catharsis from the shadows; it's no surprise they recorded a killer version of "Wall of Death."

Shoot Out the Lights' astonishing closer tosses Richard and Linda into a highly metaphorical fun fair. There's Noah's Ark! The mouse! The crooked house! But the doomed couple opt to whirl in a loop, caught in centrifugal force, wherever it may lead.

The best part of "Wall of Death" is when Thompson launches into his solo, cracking like a bullwhip, as the ride cymbal doubles up, barrelling the album — and this musical couple — toward its end. The Tunnel of Love ends here.

"1952 Vincent Black Lightning" (Rumor and Sigh, 1991)

For all of the absolute bangers and weepers above, Thompson's most revered song by some margin actually came along during the '90s.

After his requisite '80s wilderness period, Thompson slugged out the deliciously new wavey Rumor and Sigh, which gave him a hit with the jangly sardonic "I Feel So Good." The other lynchpin track was "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," a popular knockout despite never being a single.

The fictional story of James' bequeathment of the titular motorbike to Red Molly re-cemented Thompson as a consummate storyteller, his avuncular voice and percolating guitar driving it all home.

"The Ghost of You Walks" (You? Me? Us?, 1996)

As with many Thompson deep cuts, he bettered "The Ghost of You Walks" on the must-have Acoustic Classics Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. But this version on You? Me? Us? will do similar heartwork on you, from its butterflies-inducing arpeggios to Thompson's tender chorus.

"Blue murder on the dance floor / French kisses in the rain," Thompson sings, at a relationship's dimming of the day. "Blood wedding in the water 'til I see you again / Dutch courage is the game." Plainly, "The Ghost of You Walks" is one of the most beautiful songs Thompson ever wrote.

"She Never Could Resist a Winding Road" (Still, 2015)

Jeff Tweedy has found himself on the shortlist to give lifers a jolt in the studio; he's helmed albums by Bill Fay, Mavis Staples, Low, and more. Still arguably holds up the best, possibly because Thompson's personality permeates it completely.

Still has a lighter touch than most of the albums that surround it, which means Thompson's sticky melodic instincts take the forefront.

The opener, "She Never Could Resist a Winding Road," makes an ancient-sounding melody gloriously unspool, culminating in an exhilarating solo by Thompson.

Still's title says it all: Thompson isn't simply an old master still doing the thing. As on the wondrous Ship to Shore, he's revered equally for what he's creating right now.

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Twenty One Pilots performing in 2022
Twenty One Pilots perform at GPWeek Festival in 2022.

Photo: Mauricio Santana/Getty Images

feature

Twenty One Pilots' Road To 'Clancy': How The New Album Wraps Up A Decade-Long Lore

Three years after 'Scaled and Icy,' Twenty One Pilots' seventh studio album is here. Dig into the rock duo's journey to 'Clancy,' and how it further showcases their knack for vivid world-building.

GRAMMYs/May 24, 2024 - 07:28 pm

Long before Twenty One Pilots developed a cult following, the Columbus, Ohio natives were determined to not be put into a box. From their first EP, 2009's Johnny Boy, they've blended elements of emo, rap, alt-pop, electronica, incorporating hardcore and hip-hop into their shows. "No one knew where to put us," drummer Josh Dun told USA Today in 2014. "But we've approached live shows as a way to build something from nothing."

In the decade since, the band's sheer determination and eclectic onstage personality have made them one of the biggest rock groups of their generation. They're equally as spontaneous and intriguing in their music, building an entire world through dynamic soundscapes and visuals — and their new album, Clancy, ties all of it together.  

As the band revealed in a press release upon announcing the album in March, Clancy "marks the final chapter in an ambitious multi-album narrative" that began with Blurryface in 2015. But it certainly doesn't feel like an ending; Clancy further expands on the theatrical style and eclectic sound they've showcased from the start, offering both a resolution and an evolution.

While the makings of the signature Twenty One Pilots aesthetic began with its original formation as a trio — lead singer Tyler Joseph and his friends Nick Thomas and Chris Salih — it truly took shape when Dun replaced Thomas and Salih in 2011. Dun and Joseph had a common goal to re-formulate the way songs and shows were crafted; the drummer utilized samples and backing tapes at their gigs, helping the band dive deeper into their alternative style by fusing everything from reggae to pop together.

As a newly formed duo, Twenty One Pilots issued their album Regional at Best in 2011 — their last release before they signed to a major label (though, as they told Huffpost in 2013, they since consider the record a "glorified mixtape"). After significant social media buzz and selling out a show at Newport Music Hall in Columbus, the duo was courted by a dozen record labels, which set the stage for their big break.

"We went from no one in the industry caring to all of the sudden it was the hot thing for every label, independent and major, to be interested in some way," Joseph told Columbus Monthly in 2012 upon signing to Fueled by Ramen, which the singer said they were drawn to because they were able to retain "creative control" — a factor that would become increasingly more important with each release. 

Their 2013 album Vessel — which featured a combination of new and re-recorded songs from Regional At Best —spawned the band's first charting single, "Holding On to You," a rap-meets-pop track that oscillates from sensitive indie ballad to energetic anthem. Not only had they begun making a mark commercially, but it seemed to be the album that Twenty One Pilots felt they were hitting their stride creatively, too: "I know some people might not like this, but I kind of view Vessel as our first record," Joseph told Kerrang!at the time.

Though the character "Clancy" first came about with 2018's Trench, Twenty One Pilots actually introduced the world that Clancy would eventually live in with 2015's Blurryface, which focused on a titular character who embodies depression and anxiety. "It's a guy who kind of represents all the things that I as an individual, but also everyone around me, are insecure about," Joseph said of his alter-ego in a 2015 interview with MTV.

To convey the "feeling of suffocation" caused by insecurities from what he creates, Joseph began wearing black paint on his neck and hands in music videos and on stage to represent the "Blurryface" character. As Joseph told the Recording Academy in 2015, the "common thread" of all of the songs on Blurryface was that Joseph's alter-ego would be defeated, and each song wrestled with the dichotomy between darkness and optimism.

While Vessel kickstarted the band's commercial success, Blurryface saw their popularity explode and resulted in the band's best-selling single, the eerie rap-rock anthem "Stressed Out." The commercial success of Blurryface helped their hot streak continue into 2016 with the release of "Heathens." While the song served as the first single from the Suicide Squad soundtrack, its haunting production fits right into the world the pair had begun building with Blurryface. Their acclaim continued to grow, with Twenty One Pilots earning their first GRAMMY in 2017 for "Stressed Out" in the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance Category — and, in line with their affinity for stunts, dropping their pants as they accepted their award.

Ahead of the release of their 2018 concept album Trench, the lore surrounding "Clancy" really began. Twenty One Pilots began leaving clues for fans on a website known as DMAORG, which featured black-and-white images and letters from "Clancy," who ultimately became the protagonist of the album. Twenty One Pilots fans (often referred to as the"Skeleton Clique") began clamoring to deduce puzzling clues and posting their theories about the narrative's endgame online.

With Trench, they found more characters and a deeper narrative. The overall album depicts "a world where nine dictatorial bishops keep the inhabitants (Tyler included) of a fictional place named Dema from escaping its controlling clutches, with the help of the Banditos — a rebel organization (featuring Josh)." On a larger scale, the album grapples with mental illness, suicide and an expansion on Joseph's insecurities from Blurryface

But Trench isn't one cohesive story; rather, it's a series of songs with clues embedded within. For instance, in "Morph," the character Nico is introduced, who is also the subject of "Nico and The Niners." From there, fans gleaned that Nico was one of nine bishops controlling the citizens of Dema, and those nine bishops were represented by each of the songs on Blurryface. The bombastic "Pet Cheetah" references that the house has vultures on the roof which alludes to it — and Joseph's home — being Dema. 

As with Blurryface, visuals became an integral part of the album cycle. This time, they used them to illustrate life in the dystopian Dema, which personifies depression through the trilogy of music videos for "Levitate," "Nico and The Niners" and "Jumpsuit." While Joseph's black-painted neck and hands signaled the Blurryface era, dark green clothing marked with yellow tape signaled the Trench era. During this time, the "Clancy" character remained shrouded in mystery — though through videos and letters shared by the band, fans theorized that it is an opposing force to "Blurryface."

By the time Twenty One Pilots' 2021 album, Scaled and Icy, came around, fans quickly noticed that it paid homage to "Clancy" as an anagram for "Clancy is dead," while also acknowledging the COVID-19 pandemic as a shortened phrase for "scaled back and isolated." While Twenty One Pilots could have leaned into the harrowing events of lockdown, they instead chose to focus on what has driven the band itself, the power of imagination — something that has been behind much of the band's work since Blurryface.

With the album came three singles — the propulsive "Shy Away," the heartwrenching banger "Choker" and the funk-pop-tinged "Saturday — which were recorded when the duo was working virtually during the pandemic. Unlike the past two projects which grappled with this doomed slant, Scaled and Icy pivoted toward a sunnier sound, signaling a shift in the narrative. But it didn't mean the dark world of Blurryface and Trench were completely in the past; upon Scaled and Icy's release, Joseph revealed to Apple Music that there would be "one more record" and "an explanation and book end" before moving onto another story.

Three years following the release of Scaled and Icy, fans began receiving letters from the "Sacred Municipality of Dema" — a reference to the fictional city featured on Trench, signaling what appeared to be a new era diving deeper into the band's lore. Since the previous record featured an anagram about "Clancy" in its title, it seemed natural that the next album would be named after the character. 

"'Clancy' is our protagonist in this story we've been telling, stretched out over the last several records. 'Clancy' is the type of character who, for a long time, didn't know if he was a leader or not, didn't want to take that responsibility," Joseph told BBC Radio earlier this year.

As the singer had hinted in the Scaled and Icy era, Clancy brings fans back to the darker narrative that began with Blurryfacet. After Joseph's character escapes Dema a handful of times, joins a rebellion, then is captured again, he finally has the same abilities as the bishops and aims to free the people of Dema. The album attempts to answer a few conceptual questions along the way.

Clancy's blistering first single, "Overcompensate" is inherently hopeful, and answers the long-lingering question fans have been wondering: Who is "Clancy"? According to the psych-funk number, it's been Joseph all along ("If you can't see, I am Clancy/ Prodigal son, done running, come up with Josh Dun.") As Joseph further explained to BBC Radio, "[With] 'Overcompensate', there's a bit of a confidence and swagger in it that the character needed to embody in order to take on the new role in the story we've been telling, and Clancy is gonna rise up as that person."

But much of the album focuses less on the literal lore, instead tackling the overarching themes of its counterparts: Joseph's struggles with mental health. Despite the darker, anxious nature of the album's lyrics, the majority of Clancy has a self-assured breeziness to it, jumping off of the upbeat Scaled and Icy sound. 

On the ballad-like closer, "Paladin Strait" — named after a fictional body of water off the coast of Dema —Twenty One Pilots really digs into the narrative of "Clancy" the character in a literal way again. What's revealed is the final battle between "Clancy" and "Blurryface" with no apparent winner — alluding to the idea that there is not necessarily a triumph over depression. In the final line, the band offers a callback to a lyric from Blurryface: "So few, so proud, so emotional/ Hello, Clancy."

While the ending may remain ambiguous, it may not be a coincidence that Twenty One Pilots postponed Clancy's release date by a week (from May 17 to May 24) in order to finish filming music videos for each of the tracks, all of which were unveiled upon the album's release. So, there's still hope that fans will find out definitively what happened to "Clancy" — or maybe it means his story isn't completely finished. 

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Photo of Lenny Kravitz wearing dark black sunglasses and a black leather jacket.
Lenny Kravitz

Photo: Mark Seliger

interview

Feel Lenny Kravitz's 'Blue Electric Light': How The GRAMMY-Winning Rocker Channeled His Teen Years For His New Album

'Blue Electric Light' is a laser beam through Lenny Kravtiz's musical ethos: a rocking, impassioned and defiantly Lenny production. The Global Impact Award honoree discusses his first album in six years, and the flowers he's received along the way.

GRAMMYs/May 24, 2024 - 02:22 pm

Lenny Kravitz is a vessel — a divining rod of creative direction. 

"I just do what I'm told. I'm just an antenna. So what I hear and what I receive, I do," he tells GRAMMY.com.  It's with that extra-sensory, spiritual guidance that Kravitz created his latest album, Blue Electric Light. "I just saw and felt this blue light — electric blue, almost neon light —radiating down on me."

Out May 24, Blue Electric Light is Kravtiz's first LP in six years and fittingly flits through the rocker's cosmology: Arena-ready booty shakers like "TK421" (the music video for which features the nearly 60-year-old unabashedly shaking his own booty), Zeppelin and Pearl Jam-inspired rockers like  "Paralyzed," and shared humanity-focused groovers like "Human." There's plenty of '80s R&B sensibility throughout, giving  Blue Electric Light a perfectly timed, timeless feeling.

It's as if Kravitz took a tour through his own discography, landing right back where he started: In high school. In fact, two of the album's tracks — "Bundle of Joy" and "Heaven" — were written when the four-time GRAMMY winner was still a teenager. While Kravitz's latest may lean into the sounds of his young adulthood, the album's underlying themes remain consistently spiritual, intimate and emotional. "My main message is what it has always been, and that is love," Kravitz told GRAMMY.com in 2018. And by staying true to himself and this message of love, Lenny Kravitz is thriving.

"I've never felt better mentally, spiritually, and physically. I've never felt more vibrant," he says today.

Kravtiz has also had a big year. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and, during 2024 GRAMMY week, was honored with the Global Impact Award at Black Music Collective’s Recording Academy Honors. At the ceremony, Kravtiz was lauded for his work with his Let Love Rule foundation, and his iconic discography celebrated in a performance by Quavo, George Clinton, Earth, Wind & Fire bassist Verdine White, and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith.

Reflecting on his achievements, Kravitz remains humble. "Success is wonderful, but I only want success by being me and doing what it is that I'm hearing, as opposed to following something or a formula."

Ahead of releasing Blue Electric Light into the world — just a few days shy of his 60th birthday on May 26— Lenny Kravitz spoke with GRAMMY.com about revisiting his past, following his gut, and stopping to smell the flowers.

You haven't released a record in about six years. Why did you feel now was the time to put new music out, and what was inspiring you?

Well, it was just by virtue of what was going on. So I released [2018's Raise Vibration and], I toured for two years. Then COVID hits two and a half years [later]. It wasn't like I went away or wasn't inspired. I had a whole other year planned. I was going to tour for three years on that last album.

But [when] COVID happened, the world shut down and I got stuck in the Bahamas for a couple of years and a half. And so during that time I was just being creative. I [wrote the whole album] during that time and a little bit afterwards; [I wrote] just maybe two songs afterwards.

When I finished, then I had to figure out when I wanted to put it out and how. I did the Baynard Rustin song ["Road to Freedom" from the Academy Award-nominated film Rustin], and then I ended up pushing my album so I could fully promote the film and the legacy of Bayard Rustin.

Anyway, here we are. Everything happens in the time that it should, and I'm looking forward to putting this out and getting back on the road.

I read that this record was like an album that you didn't make in high school and it has this very young spirit. What took you to that place?

At the beginning of the pandemic, I released a book called Let Love Rule, and it ended up on the New York Times bestseller list. It was about my life from birth to the first album [1989's Let Love Rule], so around 24 years old. In this book, I spent a lot of time in my teenage years when I was developing. That came out at the beginning of the pandemic and I was doing a lot of press for it.

And I think because I was exploring that time so much when I was writing the book and then talking about that time so much when I was promoting the book, it just came out. And it was a time in my life that I never really celebrated. I never put music out at that time.

When I found my sound [on] Let Love Rule, all that material I was working on at that time got buried before. And so I just went to that place. I didn't plan on it, it just happened. In fact, two songs on the record ["Bundle of Joy" and "Heaven"] are from high school. 

So it's a blend of where I am now and where I was then. And it's a really fun record and I had a really beautiful time making it. It's a celebration, and it's sensual and sexual and spiritual and social and it hits all the marks. I'm looking forward to getting out there.

You were obviously deep in your memories, and it sounds like you were probably listening to a lot of Prince in high school.

There's a lot of things. There's a blend of '80s technology and drum machines, and real instruments and synthesizers that I pulled out from then. During that time, yeah, I was listening to a lot of Bowie. I was listening to a lot of Prince, a lot of Rick James, a lot of just soul and R&B in general, and rock.

Are there any songs on the record that you are particularly proud of or that are really meaningful to you?

All of them. I hear it all as one piece. So it's just one flow of consciousness, but I'm really proud of the record. 

One of my favorite tracks would be the opening track, "It's Just Another Fine Day in this Universe." I just think it's such a vibe and I love the way the chorus makes me feel. I think "Stuck in the Middle" is really pretty and sensual.

Speaking of vibes, when I'm listening to the record, it feels very hopeful. Is that generally how you've been feeling or how you go through the world these days?

I'm pretty optimistic. But now even more than ever, just on a personal level, I've never felt better mentally, spiritually, and physically. I've never felt more vibrant and I'm becoming more comfortable within myself in my skin and in my place. 

I've learned that listening to that voice inside of me and sticking to what it is that was meant for me, my direction, has paid off and it feels good.

What do you attribute that growth and that deep comfort to, both personally and creatively?

Just [having] time to see the results. I'm blessed to live, to see the results of being faithful to what it is you've been given and told to do by the creative spirit, by God. People have always been trying to push me in different directions: "Do this, do that, follow this, go this way. This is what's happening right now." Follow the trends because they're looking at it as a business and they're trying to make money and have success.

Yes, success is wonderful, but I only want success by being me and doing what it is that I'm hearing, as opposed to following a formula that one thinks would work. Because once you follow that, you're already late, it's already happened. And I am not about being late. 

I don't mind setting the tone or the trend and being early and not getting recognized for it at the time. Because I'm not doing it for the reason of receiving accolades or whatever. I'm doing it to be expressive and to truthfully represent myself.

I think that's a fantastic way to be. People come around eventually, right?

Yes. I've been reading reviews of my heroes back in the day, and I remember seeing Led Zeppelin reviews just ripping them to shreds. Led Zeppelin [are] praised [for] being classic and genius, but at one time they were s—, somebody said. So if you live long enough and you keep doing what you're doing, if you're doing the right thing and what you're supposed to be doing, you'll see that shift in people's opinions. 

Not that that matters, but when you see it, it feels good because you know that you did it the way you were supposed to do it. 

I hear a little bit of that defiance on this record too, that and the centering of your own truth on "Human." Can you maybe tell me a little bit about that track and how it came to you?

Well, it just came like they all come. So I hear it and I think to myself, Okay, that's interesting. That has this real pop anthem, very uplifting feeling. [The song] speaks to us as spiritual beings having this human existence on this planet.

We are at our most powerful when we are authentic to ourselves. When you're authentic to who you are, you're shining and you represent what it is that you're meant to represent. And so the song just speaks on that, and really using this human existence to learn and to walk in your lane to reach your destiny.

In life since we've been born, we've been told what to do and how to do it: "Don't go this direction, go that way," and "No, don't do this, do that because this is the way it's done" or "This is what's safe." And we're all born with a gift; we're all born with a direction. And we don't all hit the marks because sometimes we don't accept what our gift is. Or we're too busy looking at others and what their gift is and we want what they have, and we leave behind what we were given. We go chase something that is not for us; it's that other person's calling.

So the more we shed all of that and really just walk in our lane, the better. And I am enjoying this journey of humanness and learning and growing, falling, getting up, climbing up the mountain, falling again, getting back up, continuing up. That's what it's about. It's not about how many times you fall... It's about how you get up and keep going. We're all here to live and learn and, hopefully, love. 

I'm curious if the title of the record translates to this idea at all. Does Blue Electric Light manifest in any real way to you as a spiritual guide?

To me, it's a feeling. I just saw and felt this blue light — electric blue, almost neon light —radiating down on me, and that light is life. It's God, it's love, it's humanity, it's energy. And just metaphorically, that's what that represents to me.

Right on. To take it away a little bit from the existential and the spiritual, you just received the Global Impact Award at the 2024 GRAMMYs. You said you're not doing these things for accolades, but I'm curious how it felt to be recognized for this aspect of your work something that isn't inherently musical that's a little more outside yourself.

Where I am in life right now is, if someone's going to hand you flowers, then stop, smell them and enjoy them. And that's what I'm doing. 

I make my art because I make my art and for no other reason, but when handed these flowers, I'm appreciative. I'm grateful, and I will enjoy them because I spent my whole career not doing that. I was always moving so fast and [was] not only concerned with the art and moving forward, that I didn't enjoy those moments when you get awards or things. So I made a promise to myself years ago, moving forward when the flowers are delivered, that I will stop and smell them, take a moment, breathe, and then move forward. 

And that's what I'm doing, because every day of life is beautiful. And when you can celebrate, why not celebrate?

Amen to that. It's that presence of mind and spirit that you have been talking about this whole time and seems to have flowed through your artwork as well. With regard to the work with your Let Love Rule foundation, are there any projects that you would love to tackle next?

There's so many. From some things I've been doing with friends, like building certain foundations in Africa with someone that's on the ground there, doing it firsthand with orphanages in schools, to the medical situation in the Bahamas, to continue providing medical and dental care for free to the people so they can have their basic health issues taken care of. 

And then also working with kids in the arts and helping to give them a foundation to work from. These are things that I'm interested in.

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