Singer/songwriter Steve Madewell uses dramatic textures to enhance song experiences

Written by Carson James
To these ears, Steve Madewell is a painter as well as a musician. Too often in this genre, we give such an emphasis on the craft of songwriting that we neglect the creativity needed for the arrangements. Not so with Madewell. Here is an artist who spent as much time and effort into making every track on his album Arrow Creek sparkle like his words. Let’s take a trip into Madewell’s world, one that spans historical events and geographical territories.
Carson James: You differ dramatically from many other singer/songwriters, past and present, by placing as much emphasis on sonic texture as your lyrics. Are you influenced by movie composers, too? If so, which ones?
Steve Madewell: Well, a song is a story set to music. For me sonic texture has a tremendous impact on the power of the message in the lyrics. Arrow Creek is very sparse, and I was working to make the texture of the music that is there as dramatic as I could, especially for what I was working with, including emptiness. I can listen to some songs for years and never hear the lyrics because I can’t get beyond the texture of the music. Speaking of beyond, the song “Beyond Where I Have Been” was a lyric that I liked, and I had a kind of Gospel thing in mind. Every recording I did sounded way too “march” like. So much so that I wouldn’t even share a demo with Caroline Quine, who was helping me with the project. I was in the barn one night trying to work it down to the essence of the tune, and scotch played a big role in that effort. I recorded the version that is on the disc that night and sent it via Internet to Caroline. She really liked it and when I played it back it was like, “Who played that?” But it got to where I needed it to be. So, yes, texture is important – no, critical. I appreciate a good sound track. Some of my favorites include Hustle and Flow and T-Bone [Burnett] is at the top of my list. Eddie Vetter’s Into The Wild is great and I’m Not There has a killer soundtrack. I think Once is not only a good soundtrack but that recording sequence does a great job depicting what that whole scene can be like, too.
James: There’s substance to your lyrics, but you write about a variety of topics beyond the formula of love found and lost, especially the plight of a Native American hero on “Who Will Weep for Me.” Are these subjects personal to you in a deeper way that we, the listeners, are not aware of?
Madewell: I hope they are just as deep to you as they are for me. An interesting thing about “Who Will Weep For Me” is the connection that the story makes with the loss of a family farm, i.e. a way of life (and even the loss of the neighbor who is telling the story) and the loss of Logan’s family and subsequently the loss of the Native American people’s way of life. It is a song as much about suburban sprawl as it is anything. I have worked on many farms as a kid and young adult and that way of life is truly in decline. I heard a Native American address a land conservation conference, and he delivered an invocation in his native language which he interpreted. He asked the attendees to be blessed with their efforts to protect and preserve the rare and endangered plants and animals on Earth and to be blessed in their efforts to protect open space, but he also asked for someone to work to protect his people from extinction for in his tribal subset he was one of only 19 remaining. The two ideas fit together. And the Chief Logan story is one of many many heart-wrenching events that occurred in the early history of this country. As a general observation, people have no idea what has historically gone on around them. Consequently, they have a limited sense of where they live, limited value or reverence to their surroundings and inadvertently a diminished sense of self.
James: “Is This What We Have Become” questions the shift in priorities of baby-boomers, namely the idealists of the late ’60s. Do you feel that people have become increasingly materialistic over the past few decades? Why do you think that happened?
Madewell: That song came out of the experience of having in a very short period of time several people from my past look me up and tell me how screwed up they were and one asked me to forgive them for something that happened 30 years ago. Leaving me thinking: what is up with that? People are looking for some sort of spirituality that takes them away from who they are and the richness of what they have lived. And this explains the growing trend in evangelical fundamentalism. The route that will wash away the sins of your past, but there is a price. And that is “hey baby it is my way or the highway” mantra of most fundamentalist religions, and “Oh, by the way, if you don’t agree with my point of view, you are going to hell or maybe my religion is justified in killing you.” I know a number of people who have jumped on this bandwagon that were certainly out there in their youth that simply clamped down on their children. I know what these folks were doing, and they seemed to live through it. They are productive and good people now. Yes, I have seen my share of casualties on the way, but isn’t life full of them? Don’t we truly learn from these experiences? I am not sure we learn anything from homogeneity. There is so much misdirected money spent on the effects, not the causes of social problems, child rearing, drug abuse, the environment, you name it. Really, it seems that there was a great deal of talk but limited commitment by us boomers to seek meaningful change. Don’t get me wrong, there are some wonderful exceptions, and the world is a better place for the efforts of those people who have worked to keep those ideas of the ’60s and ’70s alive, but all and all we just settled into being comfortable, fat, and consumed with wanting more. We know better, but history has demonstrated time and time again crisis creates change. We’ll keep at it until we create a crisis. Also after 9/11 happened, I found myself walking around airports with people in uniform slinging semi-automatic weapons on their shoulders, and we began to live in the social self lock down. Hey man, I am not in some little country somewhere, I am in Cleveland, Ohio. Please don’t get me started.
James: The production and mixing on your album is stellar. How much time was put into this project to achieve that pristine audio quality?
Madewell: Thank you very much. I spent a considerable amount of time with mic placement. There is really not much there, very open arrangements. I worked a great deal on the texture of the tunes. Trying to get the right openness. I was trying to get a sound like you are sitting in a stairwell playing the guitar. Michael Joly helped me with some suggestions and also did some modification on a couple of my mics. The recording was done with flat EQ, no compression, no effects going in at all. Several of Caroline’s vocal tracts were built around pieces I emailed from Ohio to Colorado that she recorded and e-mailed back. She recorded everything dry and was using Pro Tools and an AT 4040 mic I think. I used bits and pieces from three different tracks of Billy Lestocks’ slide mandolin piece to get the stereo field I wanted on “Climb,” and I sort of did the same thing with the bowed bass and upright bass for “Is This What We Have Become.” Everything else was very straightforward and recorded on a Korg D 1600 with Oktava mics and a couple art tube preamps. Afterwards, I added some reverb, multiband compression and sweetened up the EQ. Oh yes, Alex Bevan set the final master EQ, and I think he was using Digital Performer.
James: How long have you been writing songs? How has your music evolved since then?
Madewell: I wrote my first tunes when I was 14 or so and did some of my own material in high school rock bands. Really, I needed to make a living and was playing cover tunes for the past several decades until it was time to start writing songs again. I have been pretty much consumed with my conservation gig for the past 30 years and written volumes and volumes of proposal for environmental grants and such. I played in clubs and bars for many years because I needed the extra money and then also just to keep doing music. I was afraid if I quit gigging I would be done. In the past few years I stopped playing out over the winter months to give myself time to write songs and allow the music that has been brewing all these years to come out. In one way I guess the song ideas have evolved in my efforts to tell the story in a place or create a surrounding for it. I never thought about what that could do for the image of a song years ago. It’s funny though as some of these tunes I hear as band pieces, but I don’t have the time to do that right now, so I put the effort into finding a stripped down version that works.

Americana singer/songwriter Lisa Dudley finds inspiration in patriotism, sacrifices of troops

Written by Carson James

America seems to be in a state of confusion right now, caught in a whirlpool of political divide and indecision, fatigue over the war in Iraq, and a troubling recession. So singer/songwriter Lisa Dudley caught me by surprise with her unflinching and sincerely felt patriotism, one that does not swing left or right but instead reaches into this country’s warm red, white, and blue heart.

Carson James: “Bring ‘Em Home, Lord” can be interpreted as being about soldiers currently serving in Iraq. Was this the basis for the lyrics? Or does the tune actually predate the current war?

Lisa Dudley: I wrote “Bring ‘Em Home, Lord” for the miners when they were trapped in the hole.  It’s a prayer I used to say when I handed my husband his lunch box and sent him off to work.  “Bring him home, lord.”  Then I found myself doing it when I put children on a school bus.  “Bring them home, lord.”  When I found out all those men were trapped, I sat down at my piano and wrote the song, “Bring ‘Em Home, Lord.”  If you remember, one man did get out of there alive. Prayer works. And miracles happen.

James: You have a lot of classic country influences in your songs. Is that the music you grew up on? How did you become exposed to it, and who were your biggest influences within that genre?

Dudley: I was raised on classical music almost exclusively and a little Joan Baez and the Kingston Trio when I was very little.  As an adult, I bought a new car that had a new radio feature — scanning — and I heard a voice that blew me away. It was Vince Gill. I stopped the radio at that country station and never changed it again. I was completely hooked on Vince Gill, and he changed my life forever. The song was, “I Never Knew Lonely.” I was stunned that one song could do that to me. I was made so aware of how lonely I was in my marriage. Two years later, I divorced my husband and moved to Nashville. I am very influenced by Dolly Parton.  I have big boobs, too!  The other influence was Townes Van Zandt.  I met him before he died.  We partied together.  I don’t drink so I just watched him drink a whole bottle of something or another. But he kept asking me to sing more and more of my songs and telling me how good they are. I keep a photo of him in my office so I can remember how good my songs are.

James: What’s the story behind “Twenty-One Guns”?

Dudley: Harry Moore and I were living together in my pace arrow motor home in the driveway of Valerie Amerling’s home in Lebanon, TN, about a half hour east of Nashville.  One night I went into the house to shower and found her husband Ray Shell had passed over and met his maker – right there in his favorite chair.  We transported him and Valerie to Kentucky to be buried, and he had a full military funeral for an officer of the Air Force. I had never seen a military funeral before and I was blown away by the white gloves and the way they move their hands across the flag as they fold it. We wanted to honor Ray because the last thing he had said the night before he died was, “I never got any respect for Korea, and I never got any respect for Vietnam.” Originally we wrote the song for Vietnam veterans and we sang it that way for a long time. Vietnam veterans would cry when they heard it. Harry was a Vietnam vet. When Harry’s son went into the Marines and was sent to Iraq, he asked me to rewrite the lyrics to be more modern and reflect all war.  Shortly after I did that, Harry died.  Three friends of mine, all Vietnam vets, died a month apart that year.  That was tough for me.  All the songs on my next album, Angels Will Carry You Home, came from that experience. There’s only one more thing he asked me to do before he died.  He asked me to get “Angel on My Shoulder” to Josh Turner. I haven’t figured out how to do that yet.

James: There are many young people who feel that patriotism is corny and outdated. Why do you think they’ve grown to feel this way and have you encountered experiences to the contrary?

Dudley: I don’t think patriotism is corny and outdated at all. I was raised overseas, and I have experienced martial law. It isn’t funny to always wonder if you’ll be put in jail and to live in fear in a world with curfews. We have incredible freedoms here and I for one appreciate them. However, let me say this.  I do not believe we should curtail our civil liberties. I am fiercely patriotic but it doesn’t mean I always agree with what our government does.  But as an American citizen, I still have the right to speak how I feel. Unfortunately, now I can have my phone tapped if I say it too loudly.  My grandparents on my father’s side were immigrants from Germany.  I remember them taking us with them to vote.  It was a really important thing to do, especially after becoming American citizens.  They held hands and it was a loving, patriotic, magnificent thing to watch.  I wouldn’t have a man in my life who didn’t vote.  Voting is important. In my town, we recently lost the election by 17 votes.  If 18 people had gotten off their bottoms and voted we would have won. I don’t have kind things to say to people who think their vote and their voice doesn’t count. 

James: You don’t make a political statement in your EP as either being pro or against the war. Was that a conscious decision?

Dudley: I feel I have to support our troops and their families and the returning veterans.  But I have allowed my song to be placed on Neil Young’s site.  And it was in the Top-10 three times. I could have put out a longer CD. I have lots of “soldier songs,” and I play them for veteran’s events.  I chose to put out just the EP because I think it says it all.  I pray for the troops to come home safely, I sing an anthem to my country (that contains the line “I will fight for their right to speak as they please…”), and I celebrate the life of a soldier who believed in his country enough to die for it.

James: How long have you been writing lyrics? Do all of your songs reflect real-life experiences or about people that you know? Is it easier to write that way?

Dudley: I started seriously writing lyrics after a bad car accident with a double head injury.  Believe it or not, angels came to me and started speaking to me, and I was told to purchase an old autoharp and to write songs.  Yes, all my songs are true stories.  I wouldn’t know what to write about otherwise. For example, I am working on a demo of a new song called “Buford’s Heart.”  It’s basically a true story in that my uncle stayed alive long enough to get to the hospital and have his parts harvested for transplant.  We got a letter thanking us and telling us 16 people had benefitted – two retinas, two corneas, two lungs, two kidneys, his heart… but not his liver! So the new song is about Buford, a man who parties hearty and then dies in a car crash.  His heart is transplanted to a librarian-type who starts dancing on tables.  It’s going to make a great video.  In the song, she sends “Buford’s babies” a letter “thanking them for…Buford’s heart!”

Published in: on April 26, 2008 at 6:35 am  Leave a Comment  
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Young blues group Automatic Heat finds inspiration in Johnny Winter, Son House

A New Kid In Town: Josh Lamkin & Automatic Heat

Written by Brooke Curtis

Bluesman Josh Lamkin is way beyond his years.

When the term “bluesman” is used, it’s usually describe someone older, often a well-dressed gentleman in his 40s or 50s, singing of his life’s regrets and heartaches. The Florida-based Automatic Heat, on the other hand, is fronted by handsome lad who may or may not be old enough to perform at a bar. Kids these days, right? Well, I’m impressed. I don’t usually hear blues guitarists with Lamkin’s rock & roll fire, especially at his age. What’s exciting is that this is only the beginning. Lamkin, if he plays his cards right, still has decades of musical evolution to offer us. In the meantime, Lamkin spoke to Twang Town about his youthful plunge into the blues.

Brooke Curtis: I don’t see too many bluesmen at your age. What was your attraction to that style of music and how did it come about?

Josh Lamkin: It was the slide guitar that really sparked my interest in the blues. After hearing a lot of Johnny Winter and early Delta blues songs that had a lot of bottleneck slide in them, I was addicted to the sound of it. All through school most of my friends were into punk rock, grunge, and metal. But for me, it has always been the blues. With the slide, you can’t just pick it up and play it because you know some licks. You have to feel it. It’s all in the way you touch the strings and make it talk. The licks just came easy for me.

Curtis: Is Automatic Heat really a band or are they simply your session men?

Lamkin: We really are a band. We have a three-piece arrangement with guitar, bass, and drums. I play guitar and sing while Evan Chiovitti plays bass. Evan has been with me since day one. We met in a guitar club at school.  Evan switched over to bass, and that made our jam sessions more interesting. Over the years we have learned to read each other musically. Most times, Evan knows where I’m headed even before I do. We have several different drummers we can call on to play live shows with us, depending upon their schedules. But our friend, Dave Reinhardt, does all of our studio work. When we started out, we called ourselves “The Vintage Blues Band.” We played kicked up blues songs. We played local gigs and some school functions. One of the tunes we played in our show was “No Money Down” by Chuck Berry. A friend of ours started calling us “Automatic Heat” after one of the lines in that song. After awhile, other people started calling us that, too. So we became “Automatic Heat.” The name found us.

Curtis: What goes into your songwriting, your inspirations? Do you draw from real-life experiences?

Lamkin: Songwriting, for me, starts with the music. Once you let the music unfold, the feel of the song sort of lends itself to writing the lyrics. And yeah, sometimes real-life experiences can make their way into a song. A lot of people think the blues are just hot-licks played to a 12-bar pattern. I think Son House said it best, “There ain’t but one kind of blues. And that consists of the troubles between a man and a woman who are in love, and sometimes about being broken.” So I try to focus all of my writing around that perspective. I also have and uncle who has had terrible luck with women. Observing some of his problems has given me some great material. On the other hand, I believe I’ve already met the love of my life, and that makes for some great material, too.

Curtis: How long have you been performing the blues?
Lamkin: We’ve been playing together for about six years now and we love it. It’s great to be able to make music with your friends.There’s not a feeling in the world that compares to the rush you get on stage. Playing the music that you love, and seeing the people react, especially people who are skeptical towards the blues in the first place. I love winning them over with my music.

Curtis: Have you gotten any advice from older blues musicians? If so, what did they tell you?

Lamkin: Absolutely! I get advice all the time! There’s a blues club in south Tampa that we go to pretty often that holds an open jam. You never know who is walking through the door. A lot of heavy hitters come through there from out of town, and I’ve had the privilege of talking to and playing with some of the best. I remember Dean Germain telling me that when you’re playing the blues, it’s not what you play; it’s what you don’t play. Leave your ego at home, and always be humble and respectful in regards to your music. Be yourself. That’s pretty good advice.

Curtis: Have you had a difficult time earning credibility and respect because of your age?

Lamkin: Not that I’ve noticed, everyone that has heard us play have always been very supportive. I’ve been fortunate to meet other musicians who don’t mind giving us a chance to show what we can do. We’ve always tried to carry ourselves as professionals and as adults. And when we walk on stage, we feel very fortunate to be there. And the music speaks for itself.

Published in: on April 22, 2008 at 4:22 am  Comments (2)  
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‘Daredevil Angel’ creates ‘waves of emotion and ripples of vivid imagery’

Reviewed by Carson James

Matthew Alexander/Daredevil Angel

There are times when I found myself daydreaming while listening to singer/songwriter Matthew Alexander’s new album, Daredevil Angel. Credit that not to disinterest in the music or the lack of an attention span but to the mood-spinning qualities of his guitar playing. Alexander is no bland strummer; there is artistry in the way his fingers work the strings, creating waves of emotion and ripples of vivid imagery. On “New York City Backwoods,” Alexander’s guitar playing is absolutely spellbinding, weaving a network of melody and texture that grips the ears and refuses to let go.

You can categorize Alexander as a folk artist but that term has been thoroughly abused over the decades. It’s gotten to the point that anybody who is unplugged is labeled folk, giving birth to a small population of acoustic dullards. Alexander actually puts thought and feeling in his compositions; they switch tempo and evolve, providing full color to Alexander’s straightforward songwriting. “Didn’t Happen That Way” is robust, propulsive roots rock a la John Hiatt while “God Must Be Lonely” and “Nancy’s On My Mind” shine with the starry-eyed melancholia of James Taylor.